Ilayaraja, music and the ever-lasting confusion over copyright

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Published: July 11, 2019 12:33:32 AM

There was a wave of shock when he served a legal notice on singer SP Balasubrahmanyam (SPB), who has given a huge number of hits with the composer when he was performing concerts in the US.

Many hearings later, the Madras High Court delivered its verdict recently. Many hearings later, the Madras High Court delivered its verdict recently.

Ilayaraja came into the Tamil film industry in 1976, and became its demigod. He is possibly the world’s most prolific composer, having composed over 7,000 songs, provided film scores for more than 1,000 films, and performed in more than 20,000 concerts. He brought freshness into film music, provided hits constantly till he slowed down with the arrival of AR Rahman and a slew of new composers. He continues to be worshipped by his fans, who are legion, and who refer to him as the maestro.

The composer has been highly litigious in the past few years, fighting for the rights over his music. His complaint is that he has not received his rightful dues and has been cheated over royalty payments. In 2010, he lodged a complaint with the Chennai police that a private firm had commercially exploited his music without his knowledge. The Echo Recording Company, with which producers of various films had entered into agreements, had not paid him royalty. They had sold the music rights to other companies illegally.

He managed to get injunctions against several companies from using his music. The composer also filed cases against karaoke apps, TV, FM channels, film director Shankar (of 2.0 fame) and whoever he thought had wronged him.

There was a wave of shock when he served a legal notice on singer SP Balasubrahmanyam (SPB), who has given a huge number of hits with the composer when he was performing concerts in the US. SPB had to stop performing songs composed by Ilayaraja. This created a huge controversy, and it was time for the Tamil music industry to discuss how royalties should be shared between musicians, lyricists and singers. Everybody was confused about who owned the song. The confusion has persisted ever since.

Legal opinion was divided. Many copyright lawyers felt that Ilayaraja’s position was untenable. Performers have their own copyrights as per law. The singer is entitled to perform. The composer may be entitled to his share of the royalty. They say the Indian copyright law is a sticky subject. You can find everything you want to find in it, with almost every stakeholder finding clauses and rules that justify her motive. In most cases, such claims lead to a torrent of confusion and litigation.

The Copyright (Amendment) Act, 2012, brought in sweeping changes to the existing Copyright Act, 1957. These changes include mandatory royalty-sharing provisions, statutory licensing regime for broadcasters, a new scheme for copyright societies, a safe harbour provision for internet intermediaries, etc.

Copyright societies are formed to collectively administer the works of authors and owners of such works. It is not practical for every author or owner to keep a track of all the uses of their work. When a person becomes a member of national copyright society, her work is expected to be kept under better vigilance.

Collection of all the royalties for the usage of the work becomes easier.

The business of providing licence for any dramatic, artistic, musical or literary work incorporated in cinematic or sound recording form should be carried out only through a copyright society duly registered under this Act. The period for registration granted to a copyright society is five years and it can be renewed before expiry of this period or at the end of it.

In India, songwriters and their publishers would assign or transfer to an organisation, such as the Indian Performing Right Society (IPRS), their right to authorise the public performance of their songs. In return, the IPRS would collect a fee for every musical performance and distribute the money equally between songwriters and the owner (publisher) after deducting a service fee. Tamil film producers sell music rights to music companies who work with the IPRS. Whoever performs Ilayaraja’s music pays the IPRS in consultation with his lawyer, which settles his dues. With so many parties involved in creating music, many grey areas remain.

Many hearings later, the Madras High Court delivered its verdict recently. Both the composer and his fans claimed that the judgment is a great victory for him. The Court ruled that he owned ‘special moral rights’ over his songs. It also entitles him to restrain or claim damages in respect of any distortion, mutilation, modification or other act in relation to his work if such distortion, mutilation or modification would be prejudicial to his honour or reputation.

The judge held that Echo Recording, the defendant, too had the right to exploit the rights over the sound recordings obtained by it from various producers.

According to legal opinion in substance the judgment confirms absolutely the rights of producers as owners of “sound recordings” in films, prior and post the 2012 amendment. The only limitation that is placed on the producer is the exploitation of the musical work in a manner other than as expressed in the sound recording, for example as a standalone instrumental piece. Similarly, the composer stands restricted in expressing the musical work as a sound recording in any other manner, for example as a song with different lyrics in another film.

According to a copyright lawyer, authorship is different from ownership. What Ilayaraja has got is his right over authorship. This judgment is no great triumph for composers as producers retain the rights. The rights of composers are balanced in the 2012 amendment granting irrevocable statutory entitlement to royalties for composers. Ilayaraja’s gains by this are not substantial as the bulk of his work has been prior to the amendment.

With technology changing so fast and music being delivered through so many channels, confusion over copyright is not going to go away any time soon.

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