Landmark Copyright Ruling: How Madras High Court Gave Leading Music Composer Ilaiyaraja His Due

by M R Subramani - Jun 13, 2019 12:18 PM
Landmark Copyright Ruling: How Madras High Court Gave Leading Music Composer Ilaiyaraja His DueIlaiyaraja at his residence in Chennai. (H K Rajashekar/The India Today Group/GettyImages)
  • The judgement has paved the way for creators to enjoy absolute rights over their work, and enjoy the fruits of their labour, creativity and ingenuity.

In 1977, the Supreme Court of India had an interesting case to deal with. It had to decide if a composer of a musical or literary work or a lyricist gets to retain the copyright to the works done for a movie.

The background of the case was the move by the Indian Performing Rights Society (IPRS), an association of music composers, authors of literary and dramatic works, coming out with a fee structure or royalties to allow third parties to perform these works publicly.

But film producers objected to the collection of fee as they claimed ownership of the films including the musical and literary works in them. The producers argued that these works had been commissioned by them for use in films and had either been utilised or incorporated in the soundtracks of these films. They claimed that the entire rights of the films, including soundtracks, is vested in them.

The Copyrights Board looked into the claims of the film producers and rejected them. It said composers of music and musical works retained the copyright to their works and they could assign the IPRS to charge royalties.

Unhappy with the Copyright Board ruling, the producers moved the Calcutta High Court which upheld their claims. The court said a music composer doesn’t acquire the copyright to his/her works unless he/she reserves the copyright to the work.

IPRS filed an appeal in the Supreme Court, which was dismissed. It said the producer held the copyright to the sound recording as part of a cinematograph film. The late Justice V R Krishna Iyer, who was in the bench that heard the case, however, left an interesting footnote in the judgement.

Dwelling on a film producer’s right to exercise his/her entitlement, Justice Iyer said if a producer, beyond exhibiting the film, plays the music composition of a film separately to attract audience, he/she infringes on the composer’s copyright. He also pitched in for acknowledging the rights of a singer of a music composition in the footnote.

Despite the visionary footnote of the late Supreme Court judge, Indian artistes have continued to suffer due to lack of proper copyrights over their works. Harini Ganesh, writing in the John Marshall Review of Intellectual Property Law on The Need For Originality: Music Infringements In India, noted that Indian artistes received a small share of royalties for their work in Indian films but an amendment to the copyright law provided for an increase in the royalties. She said the amendment, however, suffered from flaws, including “equal rights” to lyricists and composers and weak enforcement by the legal structure.

All these issues cropped up before the Madras High Court when one of India’s leading film music composers Ilaiyaraja and two music labels — Malaysia-based Agi Music and Chennai-based Echo Recording Company — were locked in a dispute over his compositions.

First, Agi Music filed a petition in the High Court seeking to stay the maestro from breaking an agreement assigning his wife late Jeeva Raja complete rights of his musical compositions in November 2007.

Jeeva Raja, in turn, assigned the rights to Agi Music through a sound licence recording agreement (SLRA) and sub-publishing agreement (SPA). Agi Music was granted worldwide rights to print, publish and vend compositions of 687 films comprising 3,811 songs.

Ilaiyaraja, on the other hand, wanted Agi Music, Echo Recordings and a couple of others to be restrained from violating the copyrights to his musical works. Ilaiyaraja, who submitted that he has composed over 4,500 songs in nearly 1,000 films, argued that he is the sole and absolute owner of his musical works and “sound recordings” in these films besides a few stand-alone compositions.

The music composer said since he could not devote more time to mundane or material pursuits such as distribution, exhibition or exploitation, he signed an agreement assigning complete rights of his works to his wife Jeeva Raja in November 2007.

Echo Recordings, whose submissions Justice Anita Sumanth found bereft of details, claimed that it was the sole and absolute owner of the right in respect of Ilaiyaraja’s musical works and sound recordings in 310 films. The company said it had obtained the rights from various film producers and questioned the maintainability of Ilaiyaraja’s petition.

A single judge of the High Court restrained the music labels from “exploiting” Ilaiyaraja’s music in September 2014 till October that year before the restraint was made absolute from March 2015. Attempts were made to settle the dispute out of court but they didn’t yield the results. During this period, Ilaiyaraja moved the High Court again for contempt of court against the labels, as he alleged that they were violating the court’s restraint by continuing to exploit his musical works.

One of the contentious arguments in the court was Agi Music claiming that the period of rights bestowed by Ilaiyaraja to his wife, who died in 2011, was for 10 years. Ilaiyaraja contested this saying no specific period had been prescribed, which according to prevailing provisions mean the rights could be enjoyed for five years only.

Ilaiyaraja submitted records of payments by Agi Music showing that by marketing and selling his works, the firm owed him Rs 3.37 crore as royalties between 2007 and 2014 but it had paid only Rs 17.72 lakh. The Malaysian company had defaulted in remitting his royalties but Agi Music contended that it did not pay royalties to Ilaiyaraja since 2013 due to pendency of the suits. On this, the judge accepted Ilaiyaraja’s arguments that the rights were bestowed for five years only since the agreement did not specify the period for which the rights to musical works would be bestowed.

To Ilaiyaraja’s advantage, the producers didn’t enlist themselves in the case. In fact, the producers council provided a letter giving a list of films saying the composer enjoyed the copyrights to the musical works for those listed movies. Justice Sumanth mentioned in her ruling that producers were not party to the dispute and given the stature of Ilaiyaraja, she didn’t treat his work for producers as an employee/employer relationship.

According to the judge, one of the questions in the dispute was determining the rights vested in each of the parties. The important issue was “owner of the sound recording” and for this, Justice Sumanth examined a sample agreement entered into by Echo with Poompuhar Productions for the Tamil film Pasa Paravaigal. She said the agreement proceeded on the assumption that the producer holds the rights and he/she did not have any restriction in assigning the musical works of a composer to the music label company.

Concluding that provisions of the Copyright Act protect authors of original works, cinematograph films and sound recordings, the judge said though they are subsumed in the main asset or the movie it doesn’t take away the composer’s individuality or claim to separate copyright that is protected by law, including an amendment made in 2012.

Clauses 2 and 3 of Section 17 of the amended Copyright Act stipulate that the copyright of a composer or creator is concurrent and it operates simultaneously as well as separately. During the passage of the Copyright (Amendment) Bill in Parliament in 2012, the then Union minister Kapil Sibal said that the amendment was to give equitable distribution of royalties and vesting full ownership and right of exploitation of musical works, including in a sound record, to a composer.

Sibal pointed out that over the years producers have been taking over the artistes’ rights — be it musical score, dramatic work or performance. He said under Section 13 (i) (a) of Copyright Act 1957 an artiste has the copyright to his/her work because he/she created the artistic work.

However, as per provisions of Section 17 (1) (b) of the act, a producer became the owner of the copyright. Thus, owners of artistic work were denied their due rights by the producers, who got the right to sell these works leaving the artistes helpless. Therefore, the Copyright Act was amended in 2012 to give equitable distribution of royalties to a composer and vesting full ownership and right of exploitation of musical works, including in a sound record, in him.

Justice Sumanth ruled that the 2012 amendment of the Copyright Act made it clear that the right of “exploitation” of a work will be restricted only to the specific mode or medium stipulated in the assignment agreement.

Rights of other stakeholders including the performer are separate and entitled to protection. The right of a producer of a film does not go against these individuals, whose rights, the judge said, were identifiable, distinct and enforceable.

In particular, Justice Sumanth found nothing to suggest an employer-employee relationship between Ilaiyaraja and producers. She said the engagement of Ilaiyaraja by the producers was as a stand-alone professional and his services were commissioned as such.

The judge pointed out that Ilaiyaraja’s music has carried many a movie, which otherwise would have been a forgettable one. Justice Sumanth said the stature of Ilaiyaraja made her conclude that the arrangement between the composer and producers was not one of service or apprenticeship but “one of principal to principal”.

Section 57 of the Copyright Act protects an author or creator beyond the contractual terms with a producer and such rights cannot be taken away, the ruling said. Justice Sumanth said this section bestowed on the composer the “moral rights” over his musical works. The musician was a composer as defined by Section 2 (ffa) of the act and also an author as defined by Section 2 (d). By such authorship, Ilaiyaraja was the “first owner” of the copyright vested in his musical work.

Application of special rights under Section 57 (1)(a), the composer continued to lay claim to the authorship of his musical works despite they being assigned for sound recording. This also entitled Ilaiyaraja to restrain or claim damages for any distortion, mutilation, modification or other acts to his works.

The amendment to the Copyright Act in 2012 extended protection to a creator “in infinitum” that can be exercised by the composer or his legal heirs at any time without any time limit. The judge said Ilaiyaraja was entitled to exclusive copyright to his creations and had special right to exploit such musical work unfettered except in circumstances in which the work could have formed a part of “sound recording” of a movie.

The ruling made clear that the 2012 amendment to the Copyright Act vested a composer with full rights of his/her musical works including sound recording. Justice Sumanth lamented that Indian citizens have not been kind to their creators and geniuses, whose works are exploited “to generate benefits for corporate interests”.

Amendments in the Copyright Act provide for the creator not assigning or waiving the right to receive royalty that will be shared equally with the producer. Therefore, the judge said Ilaiyaraja held complete copyright to his works except where a “sound recording” was a part of a film.

The judgement gives the first ownership of a creation to its creator and provides for total copyright of such creations. The ruling could, from now on, form the basis on which the rights of a creator or a composer can be made absolute so that he/she can enjoy the fruits of his/her labour, creativity and ingenuity.

M.R. Subramani is Executive Editor, Swarajya. He tweets @mrsubramani

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