By: Ajay Sharma
Editor’s Note: To read author’s take on the application of John Doe Orders in Indian Courts, visit here.
India has borrowed the concept of “John Doe Order” from foreign jurisdictions (such as the USA, English, Canadian and Australian Courts). This is primarily because these jurisdictions have been using and have contributed to the development of the jurisprudence of John Doe Orders and are similar to the Indian judicial system. Therefore, it was easy for Indian Courts to apply the same concept in the Indian scenario. A John Doe Order means an injunction sought against a person or persons whose identity is not known at the time of issuance of the order. John Doe has its origin during the reign of England’s King Edward III when these orders were used to refer to unidentifiable defendants. Additionally, in John Doe Order, Court also appoints the commissioner to find out whether there has been any infringement or violation of rights which have been alleged by the plaintiff. This is because the courts can pass orders on the basis of the facts presented before them. The tremendous growth in the area of telecommunication/media industry in India has led to piracy and violation of other intellectual property rights (hereinafter ‘IPR’) In such cases, the plaintiff is not aware of the actual number of defendants because it is practically impossible to track down every infringing party. This calls for an urgent need of instruments, using which media houses and IPR holders can protect their work. To tackle this problem, the Delhi High Court adopted the John Doe Order in Taj Television Ltd. & Anr. v. Rajan Mandal & Ors. The court for the first time passed a John Doe Order. After this, various other courts in India have passed hundreds of John Doe orders in order to protect the rights of parties but all the orders passed by the Courts were in the IPR infringement suits. Quite recently, Delhi High Court passed a John Doe Order in a non-IPR suit, which is the first of its kind. This article will analyse the order passed by the Delhi High Court and its impact on future litigation.
AMWAY INDIA ENTERPRISES PVT. LTD V. RAJENDRA MEDICOS & ORS: AN ANALYSIS
Delhi High Court brought the concept of John Doe Order in India. Later other courts developed the legal framework which protects the rights of several. Recently, Delhi High Court enlarged the applicability of John Doe Orders in Amway India Enterprises Pvt. Ltd. v Rajendra Medicos & Ors. In this case, plaintiff conducted the investigation in the Bhagirath Palace, New Delhi area where it was found that the retail shopkeepers and medical store i.e., the defendants, were selling and keeping the Amway products without the permission of the plaintiff. This was in violation of Direct Selling Guidelines 2016. Thereafter, the plaintiff filed a case for an injunction against the identified defendants and unidentified defendants because plaintiff was not aware of the names and particulars of all the shops selling ‘Amway products’ illegally and without any authority. The act of the defendants had caused financial and reputational loss to the plaintiff’s company.
The court passed an injunction order against the defendants and also restrained the unidentified defendants from selling, purchasing or distributing the plaintiff’s products. While passing the John Doe Order Court relied on para 27 of the plaint which read “the plaintiff has made a case for grant of John Doe order in the present case also emphasised that in absence of the requested John Doe order the defendants’ action will cause harm that will potentially or actually result in financial or irreparable losses to the plaintiff.”
WHETHER JOHN DOE ORDERS ARE ONLY LIMITED TO IPR MATTERS?
Indeed not. John Doe Orders were never exclusive to the IPR infringement suits. Rather, the main objective of John Doe Orders is to prevent the immediate threat of damage and appoint commissioners to find out the matter at hand. However, the party approaching the Court has to satisfy that there is a strong prima facie case of infringement of its rights and show that it has a bona fide claim against the unidentified persons for violating their rights. They must also prove that if the Court does not pass an injunction, an irreparable loss will be caused to the plaintiff. In such a scenario, the court can pass an injunction order and appoint a commissioner or any other person to find out whether the claim made by the plaintiff is proper. In cases where it has been proved that such a loss has been caused to the plaintiff, a denial of the said remedy would be without any legal means to prevent what is clearly a blatant infringement of their valid property rights. The fact that the proposed remedy is novel should not weigh against its adoption by this Court. A court of equity is free to fashion whatever remedies will adequately protect the rights of the parties before it. Therefore, if any plaintiff approaches the court seeking a John Doe Order it cannot be denied solely on the ground that the matter is not related to IPR.
DO CIVIL COURTS HAVE THE POWER TO PASS A JOHN DOE ORDER IN NON-IPR INFRINGEMENT SUITS?
Initially, when the parties approached courts praying the remedy of John Doe Order, the first question which came across was “whether the Court had jurisdiction to pass such order?” The question had already been answered by the Supreme Court in Manohar Lal Chopra v Rai Bahadur Rao Raja Seth Hiralal where the court held that the inherent powers of the court are in addition to the powers specifically conferred on the Court by the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 (hereinafter ‘CPC’). They are complementary to those powers and therefore, it must be held that the court is free to exercise them for the purposes mentioned in Section 151 of the Code. Section 151 of the CPC gives inherent power in the hand of the Court to pass any order for the ends of justice or to prevent abuse of the process of the Court. Therefore, if there are extraordinary facts presented by the plaintiff and circumstances of the case, in such situation in the interest of justice, the courts in India would be justified in passing a John Doe Order even in a non-IPR infringement suit.
IMPACT ON THE FUTURE LITIGATION
The order which Delhi High Court had passed would have both positive and negative impacts on future litigation. Starting with the positive impacts of the order, the order would immensely help the plaintiffs who are aware of the infringement of their valuable rights but are not aware of the actual number of the defendants (unidentified defendants). In such situations, if the court passes the John Doe Order and appoints the commissioners for verifying the actual position without wasting time then it could save the plaintiff from suffering irreparable damages.
Moving on to the negative side of the order, let us understand the negative impact of the John Doe Order in the non-IPR matter with the help of an example. If the Court passes a John Doe Order against the shopkeepers or retailers of the specific area and restrains them from selling the product of the plaintiff, those who have a valid license of selling the plaintiff’s products would also be affected.
Secondly, it is impossible for the commissioners (those appointed by the Court) to find out the exact number of defendants because the plaintiff might have filed the suit for a specific area but it could be highly probable that the commissioner might fail to find the actual number of defendants as the same product can be sold in other parts as well. Thirdly, if the courts start the use of John Doe Order in non-IPR cases then it would increase the number of injunction suits.
Fourthly, there is no framework for the application of John Doe Order in non-IPR suits. Firstly, it depends upon the facts of the case and secondly on the discretion of the court. The application of a John Doe Order is quite different in the non-IPR cases because in such cases the plaintiff knows that there is an infringement of the trademark or copyright which can be easily proved by producing products or website. However, in non-IPR matters, the Court will have to deliver the order solely on the basis of the facts presented before it. Finally, the John Doe Order cannot be passed in non-IPR cases on the same principle in which court passes John Doe Order in IPR cases.
Indian judiciary has come up with various landmark judgments and principles which have been recognised and respected at the international forum. The latest development in the application of John Doe Order in the non-IPR matters is a welcome step. As discussed earlier, John Doe order was not only for IPR cases as its main object is to protect the interest of the affected party without any delay but the judiciary across the world applied John Doe Orders exclusively in the IPR matters. It is true that if courts start employing John Doe Orders, there will be a lot of litigation in this area which can be frivolous as while passing John Doe Order courts only relies on the facts stated by the plaintiff. However, the John Doe Order which has been passed by the Delhi High Court lacks in several aspects. Firstly, the court failed to cite any precedent from Indian or foreign jurisdiction where the Court passed the John Doe Order in a non-IPR matter. Secondly, the court relied only on the facts presented by the plaintiff which were not sufficient to pass such an order. Thus, if courts are to employ John Doe Orders in non-IPR cases, they ought to be cautious and must supplement their decision with proper reasoning.
 Billy Joel v Various John Does 1980 US Dist LEXIS.
(Ajay Sharma is currently a student at National University of Advanced Legal Studies, Kochi.)