The term ‘John Doe’ is used as placeholder names that are used to refer to a person, when their identity is unknown or withheld, during a legal action, discussion or unidentified corpse. This practice is widely used in the United States, Canada and also in UK from which the use of “John Doe” in a legal context originates.

The rapid advancement of innovation and technology brought into existence a global market for the creative industry. This in turn has promoted encroachment or theft of intellectual property rights by a class of infringers who are anonymous and unidentified. Hence, the requirement for protection of Intellectual Property, though extremely crucial, is equally challenging.

One such mechanism to protect intellectual property rights is the John Doe (an anonymous party) order.

John Doe orders are:

  • Orders which enable people who own the copyright of various content to file ex parte infringement suits against infringers of such copyright whose identity is unknown at the time of filing,
  • yet belong to an identifiable class,
  • who upon identification would be impleaded and presented with the opportunity to defend themselves analogous to any civil proceeding.

The first of such orders was passed in the US, in Billy Joel v. Various John Does, wherein, the plaintiff Billy, a very successful recording artist, found that using his popularity various merchandise like T-shirts bearing Billy’s pictures and name were being sold, unauthorizedly. Billy approached the District court in Wisconsin seeking injunctive relief against unidentifiable defendants. The court granted the injunction and established “where such injunctions are the only legal means against such blatant violation of IP rights, it shall be permitted”

In India, the first such order was passed in a landmark decision Taj Television v. Rajan Mandal[1]the plaintiffs launched a new 24-hour exclusive sports channel “Ten Sports”, which was granted the exclusive right to broadcast World Cup 2002. The plaintiffs had further given license to broadcast the World Cup to a number of cable operators in India. It was later identified that certain unauthorized parties were infringing the plaintiffs broadcasting rights. The plaintiffs proceeded to file a lawsuit against 6 known cable operators and another 14-unknown cable operators and had sought injunctions against not only the 20 cable operators but also against all other un-named cable operators who may be violating their broadcast rights. The Judge being convinced by the submissions of the plaintiff, issued an interim injunction against the unknown defendants and appointed a commissioner to look into the matter.

Requisites before granting John Doe orders:

  • Strong prima facie case
  • Serious or potential damage
  • Potential danger of losing of evidence

Procedure to be followed

  • Jurisdiction of the Suit
  • Investigation
  • Obtaining the order
  • Execution of order
  • Disposal of Counterfeit after making copies
  • Review of Execution
  • Damages

Difficulties

  • Improper implementation of orders
  • Passing of Vague/ Indefinite Injunction
  • Jurisdiction of the defendants
  • Joining different defendants in one suit
  • Lack of an authority to overview the Implementation of a John Doe Order
  • Lack of proper guidelines to grant a John Doe Injunction order
  • John Doe Orders have adverse Impact on Freedom of Speech

Thus, John Doe order is a quick and efficacious remedy which considers the  interests of copyright owners. It acts as a shield providing a preventive and expeditious remedy to the copyright owner, without knowing the actual infringer. Most importantly, they aid copyright owners in circumventing delays posed by indeterminacy and anonymity of violators and seek timely protection of their right rather than being left at the mercy of the ‘wait and watch game’.

[1]  CS (OS) No. 1072 of 2002 before the High Court of Delhi.