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Case Report: Alleged Plagiarism by a Thesis Guide

As a general rule, the author of a work owns the copyright in it. As such, a student would own the copyright in his or her research papers, thesis, dissertations etc., and any other person including a thesis guide, university, etc. would not be able to publish the works without the authorisation of the student, i.e., without obtaining a licence from the student. Even if such a licence were obtained, the student would have to be credited as the author of the work.

However, this legal position is not always honoured to the letter, and there may be grey areas, as this case shows.

High Court of Patna; Criminal Miscellaneous No. 31757 of 2000

Sutapa Bhattacharya obtained a PhD (from Bhagalpur University, Bihar) in 1988. Her thesis dealt with political mobilization and caste conflict in Bihar between 1967 and 1980, and her guide was Roma Mitra.

After obtaining her degree, Sutapa Bhattacharya permanently settled at Calcutta, West Bengal. Meanwhile, Roma Mitra, her PhD guide published a book entitled "Caste Polarisation and Politics" in 1992.

During a visit to Bhagalpur in April 2000, Sutapa Bhattacharya accessed the book  apparently written by Roma Mitra, and determined that it was “virtually copied” from her PhD thesis. She then proceeded to file a criminal complaint against Roma Mitra (and the publisher of the book) for cheating and copyright infringement.

The Learned Judicial Magistrate, First Class, Bhagalpur took cognizance of the matter after conducting an inquiry. However, Roma Mitra approached the Patna High Court against the order of cognizance. The High Court set the order aside as it was barred by limitation. However, the Court stated that “it would not be appropriate to record any finding on the merit of the case” even though it acknowledged that there was “some substance in the argument” advanced by Roma Mitra's counsel.

When Roma Mitra approached the High Court, she made the following arguments (among others):
  1. Roma Mitra had not exactly copied from the thesis of Sutapa Bhattacharya. Further, “in a case of a guide and disciple, the allegation of copying from the thesis by the guide cannot be applicable unless it is a case of exact copying from the thesis”.
  2. The thesis was prepared under the guidance of Roma Mitra who had allowed Sutapa Bhattacharya to access certain unpublished manuscripts [presumably, written by Roma Mitra herself] in order to prepare the concept of thesis.
  3. Sutapa Bhattacharya adopted the ideas, language and expression of Roma Mitra to some extent while conducting the research for her thesis and while writing it.
  4. Roma Mitra had published extensively on the Subject even prior to the preparation of thesis.
(This post is by Nandita Saikia and was first published at Indian Copyright.)