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Whose song is it anyway?

music Updated: Jan 21, 2012 00:46 IST
Amitava Sanyal
Amitava Sanyal
Hindustan Times
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While the new Copyright Bill gathers dust in our Parliament’s filing cabinets, a first-of-its-kind case on copycat music is playing out in the Delhi High Court. Last September Justice Manmohan Singh gave an interim injunction against composer Deepak Dev and the producers of the Malayalam film Urmi for copying bits of the song ‘Aaro nee aaro’ from Canadian singer Loreena McKennitt’s songs ‘Caravanserai’ and ‘The mummers’ dance’.

It was a moment without precedence in a nation that counts Bappi Lahiri, Anu Malik and Pritam among its leading composers. The Delhi court had given the defendants a chance to make their case; last Monday it imposed a ‘cost’ on them for not showing up. So the producers now cannot use the song in the film’s new versions.

People in the know say it’s not really the first time such a case is being fought. They point to the 2008 case in which Delhi Belly composer Ram Sampath had sued Rajesh Roshan for using a motif from an ad jingle of his in the film Krazzy 4. Sensationally, the Mumbai High Court judge had ruled in Sampath’s favour just a day before the film’s release. I’m told the case was settled for the small sum of R2 crore.

That’s how most cases of music copyright are bottled in this country — that is, when somebody takes the pain of going to court — says Prashant Reddy, a lawyer who blogs at Spicy IP.

Truth be told, though there are many cases regarding intellectual property theft slapped and defended here, not much of it concerns music. It may have to do with the fact that most composers do not own the copyright to their compositions — their producers do. But that’s not how things are likely to happen once the new law goes past our bickering lawmakers. And that’s certainly not how things happen in the US.

Not long ago, Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The New Yorker magazine about an intellectual property battle featuring composer Andrew Lloyd Webber. A folk composer called Ray Repp had sued Lloyd Webber alleging that the ‘Phantom Song’ from Lloyd Webber’s 1984 production of The Phantom of the Opera was too close to ‘Till You’, which Repp had written six years earlier.

Lawrence Ferrara, a professor of music at New York University who was called in as an expert, found out that the first part of ‘Phantom’ was, in fact, borrowed from Lloyd Webber’s own song, ‘Benjamin Calypso’, performed in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamboat. And the song’s second half bore a strong resemblance to ‘Close every door’, another song from the same 1960s’ musical. In effect, without being conscious of it, Lloyd Webber had repeated his own compositions.

Now, such cases “unconscious copying” gets a lot of play in the US. One just wonders what amusing cases we will be subjected to when Bollywood wisens up to such a line of defence.

Let’s see how far it can lead us. Anu Malik recently alleged that Pritam’s ‘Character dheela hai’ was close to a song he had scored for the 2001 film Ajnabee. But wasn’t that, er, close to bits from Bappi Lahiri’s ‘Disco dancer’? Which in turn was ‘inspired’ by Modern Talking’s ‘Brother Louie’.

If we toe the line strictly, we will have to wipe out much of Hindi film music — from Jnan Dutt to Pritam, via Salil Chowdhury and RD Burman. (A look at the well-researched site itwofs.com will make you despair.) So where do we draw the line?

While you ponder that, I recommend you watch Spandan Banerjee’s documentary You Don’t Belong. Shot in a coruscating black-and-white, Banerjee’s film goes in search of the writer and composer of the popular Santhali-poem-turned-Bengali-song, ‘Tui lal pahari-r deshe ja’. The non-judgmental film’s title comes from the translation of a line from the song: “Hithak torey manaise na re”.

It’s clear that Arun Chakraborty wrote the poem when he saw a mahua tree at the Sreerampur rail station — which, to the poet, was an odd sight amid all the concrete and iron. But who set it to music? Baul Paban Das tells the camera that it was he who composed the tune sitting in Kenduli near Shantiniketan, where the largest festival of Baul music is staged every January.

Did he really? It emerges in the film that the tune can be heard among many hill folk between Assam and the Rocky Mountains in the US. So does it really have a father? Given that the song is now a commercial hit for Bengali bands Parashpathar and Bhoomi, should one look at the parentage closely? Banerjee’s film doesn’t pronounce a verdict.

As for me, let me confess that I am agnostic on the philosophy of musical inspiration. All I am sure of is that it’s decent to acknowledge when borrowing anything. So let me say clearly that the headline of this column has been used before — in this newspaper, by my co-columnist Mayank Shekhar, while talking about the same subject.

Hope he doesn’t sue me.

amitava.sanyal@hindustantimes.com

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