Changes to our copyright law realigns it with legislation available in the developed world by giving content creators their due. But there are already murmurs of dissent from the distributors of Indian creativity that amendments to a law enacted half a century ago could seriously upend the country’s entertainment industry. A half century in which the world has seen the biggest information revolution since Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press. The Copyright Amendment Bill, 2010, which was tabled in the Rajya Sabha this week, tries to cover much ground in our treatment of intellectual property but falls short of what our trading partners, notably the US and the European Union, would have us enact.
The resistance to giving authors, lyricists, singers and directors a share of the royalties is based on the way the Indian entertainment industry is organised and which introduces a very localised set of issues. Films, particularly the song-and-dance variety, form the biggest chunk of entertainment we consume. Playback singing is unique to Bollywood and all its regional cousins, and so far the film and music industries have got along famously by paying songwriters and singers an upfront fee in lieu of their rights. Getting a song on air in India is a more elaborate exercise than in the rest of the world because it usually has a film attached to it. The draft law bans the transfer of these rights. Now royalties will have to be multi-party contracts instead of the current practice of the music company paying the producer of the film. And it doesn’t end there. The director of every film will henceforth be a joint owner of the copyright, thereby bumping up the number of people that each contract will have to accommodate. Do the math for a film that has five songs written by two lyricists, sung by five persons and directed by another.
But it is this very structure of entertainment distribution that squeezes out independent deals between artists and music companies. In fact, the existing copyright regime works mainly in favour of the elephant in the room: the film industry. Today one man can write a song, sing it and broadcast it over the internet and, hopefully, make money in the process. Technology is upsetting all the rules of mass media and amendments to the copyright law are in tune with the opportunities the digital world provides. Laws cannot be written for the majority, however big.