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Plucking the same old strings

Does copying or recreating a tune qualify as plagiarism? Despite intellectual property laws, in an open-source environment it is tough to differentiate between what’s original and what’s not.

india Updated: Feb 06, 2009 22:44 IST
Pratik Kanjilal

I’ve always suspected I’d heard the jingle of AIR FM, scored by Shibani Kashyap in 1996, somewhere before. Recently, I tuned in to Radio Luxembourg, the iconic rock station which went off the air in 1992 but has now risen from the ashes. I was pleasantly surprised to find the Doobie Brothers playing the AIR tune, with better lyrics.

It was in fact their 1972 hit Listen to the Music, which remains a staple of classic rock radio. The Doobie Brothers were hall of fame artistes. They were championed by the Hell’s Angels. And in India, a rip-off of their most memorable number serves as the signature tune of a national radio channel. It’s too awful to be true, so I checked it out on itwofs.com, the website of Karthik Srinivasan, South Asia’s scourge of music lifters. Hell, it’s true — Karthik had tumbled to it in December.

But is this plagiarism? There’s no easy answer. Intellectual property law was created to protect the written word and was later extended to music, which doesn’t fit very well into the straitjacket. The etymologically related ideas of authorship and authenticity have been associated with the word from early times, which is why we are familiar with vintage names like Ved Vyas and Homer. Plagiarism — ‘kidnapping’, to translate literally from the Latin — is a serious issue here. Alex Haley’s career was ruined by the discovery, in his Pulitzer-winning Roots, of material swiped from Harold Courlander’s The African.

Popular music, on the other hand, derives from the folk minstrel tradition, the oldest creative commons. The authorship and ownership of music were not fetishised until the creation of major recording labels, and they remain grey areas. If you perform a play without permission, the playwright will try to have you impaled. If you do a cover version of someone else’s song, they’ll love you for it.

Bhupen Hazarika’s most popular number is a transcreation of Paul Robeson’s 1936 version of Ol’ Man River. It was written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein in 1927 for Showboat, but who remembers? Rabindranath Tagore transcreated Robert Burns’s Auld Lang Syne, which Burns described as an “old song” he got from an “old man”, a nameless Highland curmudgeon. Of course, I’m setting aside plain theft as practised by certain masters of Bollywood music, who are paid handsomely to steal and even expect awards for it.

Inspired derivation is common even in the high-profile genre of rock. Take Edge of Seventeen, the elegy for John Lennon which launched the solo career of Stevie Nicks, queen of rock and roll and former better half of Fleetwood Mac. The number has been used in the video game Grand Theft Auto IV and was sampled by Destiny’s Child in their hit Bootylicious, in which Nicks herself featured. It derives blatantly from a Police number in Regatta de Blanc, but no one cares. And Ottmar Liebert, Zen monk and founder of nouveau flamenco, explicitly permits sampling of his compositions.

Amidst our fortress mentality about intellectual property, there’s something very refreshing about this anciently sanctioned open-source environment. So long as we know where a copy is coming from, it doesn’t really matter. Like if AIR FM could somehow credit the Doobie Brothers, that Shibani Kashyap jingle would be just perfect.

(Pratik Kanjilal is publisher of The Little Magazine)