Hiring a ‘ghost-writer’ in India: the question of copyright?

Ghost-writing can be described in any of the following four ways: (i) failing to list as an author someone qualified for authorship; (ii) failing to acknowledge writing support; (iii) dishonesty/plagiarism; and (iv) practices such as undisclosed authorship or undisclosed funding for writing support.[1] Alternatively, ghost-writing is a contractual arrangement under which a writer is hired and “paid to produce written work” with the understanding that “the buyer will claim and use it as his own”.[2]

Relevant Law

A copyright subsists in the “original literary works” such as the content of any book.[3] Authors of such copyrighted content or work enjoy certain economic rights or exclusive rights.[4] Also, the Copyright Act provides for the joint authorship when a work is prepared by more than one author in collaboration.[5] The Copyright Act 1957 (“the Act of 1957”) entitles the author or creator of the work as the first owner of copyright i.e. ghost-writer, and vests with author the exclusive right to reproduce, publish, perform, display, or create “derivative works” from its primary work.[6] Further, as per Section 57 of the Copyright Act, the author of a work has the moral right to be attributed as the author of his work even after the assignment, either wholly or partially, of the said copyright.[7] Lastly, Section 18 permits assignment by a prospective owner, i.e., a person who is not the first owner as defined in section 17, in a future work through a written agreement for assignment.[8] However, as per the proviso, parties can enter into an agreement for assignment of copyright in any future work, but the assignment itself takes place only after “the work” comes into existence and not before.[9]


An author may create a work on his own behalf or at the instance of another person for valuable consideration. The ghost writers are latter one. Such a work is, obviously, a form of plagiarism, however it is with consent of the actual author (the ghost writer) of the work and that makes it acceptable as a work of the ostensible author who is commissioning the work. Under Indian law, the legal position regarding such ghost-writing assignment is unclear in comparison to the international jurisdiction which specifically delineates legal standing on works made for hire (or commissioned works).[10]

Under Indian law, as per the Copyright Act, 1957, in absence of any agreement to the contrary, the person at whose instance the work is made is the owner of the copyright work under Section 17. Since there is no copyright in ideas even if they are original, the originator of the idea is not the owner of the copyright in the work which gives concrete form to the idea.[11] Therefore, where a person provides the material to another for writing a book and the latter (ghost writer) writes the book on the basis of the materials supplied then the latter becomes the owner of the copyright in the book.[12] In order to be an author of a work, a person must accordingly do more than contribute ideas to an author and it is not enough that he passed on his reminiscences to a ghost writer.[13]

In this context, Section 18, therefore, provides that in order to grant exclusive right in a literary work to a person, who is not the owner of copyright within the meaning of the Act to assign his rights in any future work, there should be a contract of assignment in existence.[14]  This way it will be treated as a contract of services and as per Section 17(b) of the Act, authors engaged under contract for service will lose the copyright.[15] Further, Section 57 of the Copyright Act, 1957 recognizes moral rights of the author, such that even after the assignment either wholly or partially of the said copyright, the author of a work shall have the right to claim the authorship of the work. Although, the jurisprudence in terms of waiver of moral rights is slightly unsettled but under several cases contract of services have been upheld and the “contracting out” has been made “permissible provided it is voluntary and does not deal with a matter of public policy”.[16]

Therefore, in the instant case, a collaboration agreement between hirer and the ghost author will form the essence of the copyright ownership. Absent a formal written agreement, ownership of the written work will be governed by the default provisions of the Copyright Act – and not necessarily according to the parties’ wishes. Under that situation, by virtue of Section 17 and Section 57, the ghost author will be the actual author or first owner of the work and consequently will be entitled to economic and moral rights, exclusively.

The best way to address this so that hirer has full ownership of a wriiten work:

To avoid such a situation, there should be a contract of assignment beforehand between the two parties such that the ghost writer will assign the rights of future work prospectively to hiring person. Following are certain steps that will help a hiring person in retaining the full ownership rights in creative works of authorship for a written work:

  • A hiring person should make it certain to have a written agreement with the ghostwriter who will actually author the written work and other allied works.[17]
  • The parties must specifically include in their written contract a provision that the ghost writer is assigning his copyright to the author that will serve as a back-up just in case the work fails to satisfy the ‘contract of services’ requirements of the Copyright Act.
  • The agreement should set extent of rights, deadlines, budgets, compensation, address author credit, decision-making, liability, death, disability, and, if properly drafted, outline a joint exit strategy.[18]
  • If the work fails to qualify as a work under contract of services, exercise, if possible, the defense of “joint authorship” to prevent the loss of “all” the rights in the work. This requires that a hiring person should mention in the collaboration agreement that he is also contributing the “expression of ideas” for the written work.

(Views are personal only. The content of this blog should not be construed as legal advice in any case)


[1]Lisa Tora et al, Ghostwriting in biomedicine: a review of the published literature., Journal Current Medical Research and Opinion  Vol 35(9) (2019), https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/03007995.2019.1608101

[2] Nandita Saikia, Ghost-writing, Plagiarism and Copyright, IN Content Law, https://copyright.lawmatters.in/2010/09/ghost-writing-plagiarism-and-copyright.html.

[3] S. 13, The Copyright Act, 1957.

[4] S. 14, The Copyright Act, 1957.

[5] S. 2(z) and S. 13, The Copyright Act, 1957.

[6] S. 17, The Copyright Act, 1957; Eastern Book Company v. D.B. Modak, (2008) 1 SCC 1.

[7] S.57, The Copyright Act, 1957

[8] S. 18, The Copyright Act, 1957.

[9] Indian Performing Right Society Ltd. v. Eastern Indian Motion Pictures Association , (1977) 2 SCC 820

[10] Title 17 U.S.C. § 101, the Copyright Act.   

[11] R.G. Anand v. Delux Films , AIR 1978 SC 1613; Sreenivasulu N.S., Law relating to Intellectual Property, Penguin-Partridge Publications, Bloomington, Indiana, USA, First Edition, 2013, Pg. No: 485.

[12] R D Ryder and Sreenivasulu N. S., Copyright and Third Sector, 7 RMLNLUJ (2015) 39.

[13] Evans v. E Hulton & Co. Ltd., [1923-8] Macg Cop Cas 51.

[14] Diljeet Titus Advocate & Others v. Alfred A. Adebare & Others , 2006 (32) PTC 609 (Del)

[15] Gee Pee Film Pvt. Ltd. v. Pratik Chowdhury & Others , 2002 (24) PTC 392.

[16] Centrotrade Minerals and Metal. Inc. v. Hindustan Copper Limited, (2006) 11 SCC 245; Sartaj Singh Pannu vs Gurbani Media Pvt Ltd & Anr 2015 (63) PTC 590 Del; Ameet Datta, Moral rights: can authors waive their special rights?, Lexology, https://www.lexology.com/library/detail.aspx?g=0e35276b-9737-47dd-9c1a-94ef6d25036d.

[17] Kaplan v. Vincent, 937 F. Supp. 307 (SDNY 1996) (If the parties had a well-drafted collaboration agreement – as opposed to oral understanding — legal entanglements would have been avoided).

[18] Dorling Kindersley (India) Pvt. Ltd. v. Sanguine Technical Publishers & Others 2013 (56) PTC 40 (Del) at p. 62. (The territorial extent should be specified)

Let us talk about E-Contracts (II): E-Commerce Business Models

Without any argument, new communication systems, especially digital payment technologies, have supplanted the snail-paced conventional systems of communication and transactions. Business communities and consumers are increasingly using digital means to send and receive information in electronic form. The reason is that the information technology (IT) has abridged the time and distance factor in transacting business. Nowadays, inflow and outflow of information have become instant and momentary. Therefore, one principal contribution of IT is in the field of contract-formation.

Electronic contracts (e-contracts) are born out of the need for speed, convenience and effectiveness. The law has already recognised contract-formation using facsimile, telex and other similar technologies.

Let us envision a contract between an Indian businessman and an English businessman. Away from digital means, one option is that one party first draws up two copies of the contract, signs them and sends (through postal or courier service) them to the other, who, in turn, signs both copies and sends one copy back. The other option would be that the two parties meet somewhere and sign the contract. However, within the digital world, the whole process can be completed in seconds, with both parties simply affixing their electronic signatures to the electronic copy of their contract. There is, thus, no need for tardy dispatching mechanism (postal or courier services) and/or supplementary travelling costs in such a situation.

Before proceeding with the E-Contracts, let us have a brief look at the basics of the business model and kinds of transactions under which e-contracts are mostly used.

E-Commerce Business Models

Electronic commerce (e-commerce), in a very general sense, refers to buying and selling products and services over the internet and the World Wide Web (www). E-commerce, however, in actuality, includes all forms of commercial transactions involving both—organisations and individuals—that are based upon the electronic processing and transmission of data including text, sound, and visual images; and involves transactions over the internet as well. In addition, e-commerce also refers to the effect that the electronic exchange of commercial information may have on the institutions and processes that support and govern commercial activities.

There are several ways of looking at e-commerce:

(1) From a communications perspective, it is the ability to deliver products, services, information, or payments via networks like the internet.

(2) From an interface view, it means information and transaction exchanges: business-to-business (B2B), business-to-consumer (B2C), consumer-to-consumer (C2C), and business-to-government (B2G).

(3) As a business process, e-commerce means activities that support commerce electronically by networked connections. For example, business processes like manufacturing and inventory and business-to-business processes, like supply chain management is managed by the same networks as business-to-consumer processes.

(4) From an online perspective, e-commerce is an electronic environment that allows sellers to buy and sell products, services, and information on the internet. The products may be physical, like cars; or services, like news or consulting, etc.

(5) As a structure, e-commerce deals with various media: data, text, web pages, internet telephony, and internet desktop video.

(6) As a market, e-commerce is a worldwide network. A local store can open a web storefront and find the world at its doorstep—customers, suppliers, competitors, and payment services. Of course, an advertising presence is essential.

Types of Online Transaction

Online transactions can be recognised and categorised in four ways:

Business to Customer (B2C)

It is the transaction where a business entity on one side and an individual customer, on the other hand, conduct business. The expression B2C has been commonly used to refer to a sale by a business enterprise or retailer to a person or ‘consumer’ conducted through the internet. For instance, Flipkart.com which provides facilities for customers to buy goods from the website—is an example of a B2C e-business. In this situation, the website itself serves the purpose of a shop. The B2C transactions can be in relation to both—tangible and intangible products. The focal point of this e-commerce application is on the consumer’s use of a merchant’s web storefront or website. Consumers from any place can browse and order for goods and services online at any time. B2C is an electronic equivalent of the conventional mail-order or telephone-based ordering system.

Business to Business (B2B)

It is the type of e-commerce where there is an exchange of products, services, or information between businesses using the internet, rather than between businesses and consumers. Alibaba.com is the prominent example of B2B model.

Customer to Business (C2B)

Customer to Business (C2B), also known as Consumer to Business, is the most recent e-commerce business model, where individual customers offer to sell products and services to companies that are prepared to purchase them. It is the opposite of the traditional B2C model. Example of this model is blogs or internet forums where the author offers a link back to an online business facilitating the purchase of some product (like a book on Amazon.com), and the author might receive affiliate revenue from a successful sale.

Customer to Customer (C2C)

It is the transaction which involves two or more customers with business entity merely providing a web-based interface to facilitate the consumer to consumer transactions (B2C). The expression C2C generally refers to the sale of a product pertaining to a consumer to another consumer either directly or through an intermediary exclusively dedicated for this activity. One best example of C2C website is Ebay.com, which is an online auction site, where any person can buy and sell, and exchange goods and articles using this website. This website provides the web-based interface (i.e. the website with its database and other functions) and users can transact freely with each other. Another example is Amazon, which in fact, acts as both a B2C and a C2C marketplace.

Recommended Readings

  • Alan Davidson, The Law of Electronic Commerce, Cambridge University Press, (2009).
  • R K Singh, Law Relating To Electronic Contracts (2017)

Let us talk about E-Contracts (I): Electronic agents and conclusion of online contracts

The advancements in the internet as means of facilitating contract formation does not, at first read, present a situation different from that applicable to a facsimile or telex. An e-contract can be created either via the exchange of e-mails or by the completion of a document as a website which is submitted to another party electronically. While it is true that to the great extent that e-contracts are modernised methods of contract formation but they don’t require any particular changes to the law. Still, there are some particular issues arising from their electronic form. This post will discuss the international instruments that provide legal recognition to e-contracts and very advanced facets of it.

A contract is concluded if the parties intend to be legally bound, and they reach a sufficient agreement. Conclusion of contract with offer and acceptance. A contract can be concluded by the acceptance of an offer.

There are various ways to conclude e-contracts. The significant and interesting ones are as follows:

Forming contracts via electronic communications (such as e-mails)

The simplest e-contract is concluded by the exchange of text documents via electronic communications, such as e-mail. Offers and acceptances can be exchanged totally by e-mails, or can be combined with paper documents, faxes, telephonic discussions, etc.

Acceptance of orders placed on online marketplaces

The vendor/ supplier can offer goods or services (such as air tickets, software, etc.) through his website. The vendee, in such cases, places an order by completing and transmitting the order form provided on the website. The merchandise may be physically delivered later (e.g., in case of outfits, CDS, books, etc) or be immediately delivered electronically (e.g., in case of e-tickets, software, etc).

Online agreements

In some cases, users are required to accept an online agreement in order to be able to avail the services e.g. clicking on ‘I agree’ while installing software or clicking on ‘I agree’ while signing up for an e-mail account.

The electronic data interchange (EDI)

It is the inter-process of communication of business information in a standardised electronic form. That is, they are contracts used in trade transactions which enable the transfer of data from one computer to another in such a way that each transaction in the trading cycle (for example, commencing from the receipt of an order from an overseas buyer, through the preparation and lodgment of export and other official documents, leading eventually to the shipment of the goods) can be processed with virtually no paperwork. In this case, the data is formatted by means of standard protocols, so that it can be implemented directly by the receiving computer. EDI is, frequently, used to transmit standard purchase orders, acceptances, invoices, and other records, and thus, reduces paperwork and the potential for human errors. In this type of contracts, in contrast to the above methods, there is an exchange of information and completion of contracts between two computers and not an individual and a computer.

Through electronic agents/ bots

It is possible for computer users to instruct the computer to carry out transactions robotically. For instance, in today’s supermarket, the computer updates its inventory as items are scanned for sale. When the stock of an item falls to a predetermined level, the computer is programmed, without human involvement, to contact the computer of the supplier and place an order for replacement stock. The supplier’s computer, exclusive of human intervention, accepts the order and the next morning automatically prints out worksheets and delivery sheets for the supply and transport staff.

These electronic agents are programmed by and with the authority of the purchaser and supplier. The legal status of electronic agents has not been clarified by the courts, but the most common view is that like any other piece of equipment under the control of the owner, the owner accepts responsibility. A computer is a tool programmed by or with a person’s authority to put into operation their intention to make or accept contractual offers.

According to Russell and Norving, ‘An agent is anything that can be viewed as perceiving its environment through sensors and acting upon that environment through effectors. A human agent has eyes, ears, and other organs for sensors, and hands, legs, mouth, and other body parts for effectors. A robotic agent substitutes cameras and infrared range finders for the sensors and various motors for the effectors. A software agent has encoded bit strings as its percepts and actions.’

Such electronic agents and devices have features which facilitate humans in their normal interaction and functions, such as, intelligence, autonomy and pro-activeness. The idea of having intelligent systems—to assist human beings with routine tasks, to shift through an enormous amount of information available to a user and select only that which is relevant—is not novel and a lot of work and results have already been achieved in the field of artificial intelligence (‘AI’).

Legal recognition of electronic agents

The E-COMMERCE DIRECTIVE 2000/31/EC of The European Parliament and of the Council of 8 June 2000 does not take in hand the issue of automated transaction made through electronic agents. The explanatory notes of the proposal of the Ecommerce Directive state that the Member States should refrain from preventing the use of certain electronic systems such as intelligent electronic agents for making a contract. But, the final version makes no reference to electronic agents in the main text or in the recital. The deletion of the proposed text furnishes a sign of the EU’s failure to respond to the tremendous growth of e-commerce. It is also not in consonance with the preamble to the Directive, which states that the purpose of the Directive is to stimulate economic growth, competitiveness and investment by removing many legal obstacles to the internal market in online provision of electronic commerce services. However, the exclusion of the provision giving legal recognition to electronic agents is a step backwards and a failure to recognise the role of electronic agents in fostering the development of e-commerce such as lower transaction costs, facilitate technology and adherence to international conventions.

The United Nations Convention on the Use of Electronic Communications in International Contracts 2005 (hereinafter referred to as the ‘UNCUECIC’) contains provisions dealing with issues such as determining a party’s location in an electronic environment; the time and place of dispatch and receipt of electronic communications and the use of automated message systems for contract formation. Art.12 of the UNCUECIC, which deals with the use of automated message systems for contract formation, states, ‘A contract formed by the interaction of an automated message system and a natural person, or by the interaction of automated message systems, shall not be denied validity or enforceability on the sole ground that no natural person reviewed or intervened in each of the individual actions carried out by the automated message systems or the resulting contract.’ The objective behind the adoption of the uniform rules was to remove obstacles to the use of electronic communications in international contracts, including obstacles that might result from the operation of existing international trade law instruments, and to enhance legal certainty and commercial predictability for international contracts and help States gain access to modern trade routes.

In the USA, the Uniform Electronic Transactions Act, 1999 (UETA) expressly recognises that an electronic agent may operate autonomously, and contemplates contracts formed through the interaction of electronic agents and those formed by the interaction of electronic agents and individuals.

Section 14 of the UETA reads as follows:

In an automated transaction, the following rules apply:

(1) A contract may be formed by the interaction of electronic agents of the parties, even if no individual was aware of or reviewed the electronic agents’ actions or the resulting terms and agreements.

(2) A contract may be formed by the interaction of an electronic agent and an individual, acting on the individual’s own behalf or for another person, including by an interaction in which the individual performs actions that the individual is free to refuse to perform and which the individual knows or has reason to know will cause the electronic agent to complete the transaction or performance.

(3) The terms of the contract are determined by the substantive law applicable to it.

Section 14 of the UETA, which is based upon Article 11 of the UNICTRAL Model Law on Electronic Commerce, deals with ‘automated transaction’. This Section states that contracts can be formed by machines functioning as ‘electronic agents’ for parties to a transaction. It wipes out any claim that lack of human intent, at the time of contract formation, prevents contract formation. When machines are involved, the requirement of intention flows from the programming and use of the machine. It is quite evident that the main purpose of this provision of the UETA is to remove barriers to electronic transactions while leaving the substantive law, e.g., law of mistake, law of contract formation, unaffected to the greatest extent possible. Also, the Uniform Computer Information Transaction Act (UCITA) also has provisions supporting the ability of electronic agents to make binding contracts.

Recommended Readings

  • Wooldridge & Jennings, ‘Intelligent Agents: Theory and Practice’, Knowledge Engineering Review, (June 1995) Vol. 10 No. 2, Cambridge University Press (1995).
  • Alan Davidson, The Law of Electronic Commerce, Cambridge University Press, (2009).
  • R K Singh, Law Relating To Electronic Contracts (2017)