Business Today

How free is the Mahatma brand?

The Father of the Nation is indeed a global icon, but Gandhi still cannot be used as an icon that companies can freely use, writes Shamni Pande.

Shamni Pande        Print Edition: November 15, 2009

The Father of the Nation is indeed a global icon, but Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi still cannot be used as a “brand icon” that companies can freely use. Or so at least it appears from the notice issued by the Kerala High Court to MontBlanc International and others following a writ petition filed in the court, seeking to stop Montblanc from marketing its recently-launched Rs 14-lakh Gandhi Pens. The issue raises a key question: how free are companies to use the image or name of an iconic historical personality?

Montblanc’s ‘Gandhi Pen’ uses a sketch of the Mahatma. The Kerala HC wants it banned.
Legal experts say using pictures of icons are not a problemif due permission is taken.
Gandhi’s picture has been used on T-shirts before.
Companies should check with intellectual property lawyers before such launches.

According to Sunita K. Sreedharan of SKS Law Associates, there is a law that specifically regulates the use of iconic figures and their names in India: The Emblems and Names (Prevention of Improper Use) Act, 1950. “Section 3 of the Act read with Rule 8 is very important in this case. From the law it appears that there should be no problem using the portrait of Gandhiji provided required permissions have been obtained,” she says.

However, since Montblanc appears to have taken permission from Gandhi’s family, could there be an ethical issue involved here? “In my view, there are no ethical issues. Gandhiji’s own austere lifestyle does not mean his image cannot be used in a non-derogatory manner subject, of course, to due permissions from the legal heirs. The company also has to abide by the law of the land,” she says.

“The subject of Gandhi is an emotive issue and the judiciary may not take a detached view. After all, he is being used as a trademark that will lead to commercial gain,” says Rai S. Mittal, Partner, Titus & Co. He says firms should check with intellectual property lawyers before such launches, but it is better for companies to steer clear of revered icons as such cases also tend to attract objections that are gimmicks to gain publicity.

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