Legally Speaking | Whose song is it anyway? Unravelling Ilaiyaraja’s continuing struggle for musical ownership - Hindustan Times
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Legally Speaking | Whose song is it anyway? Unravelling Ilaiyaraja’s continuing struggle for musical ownership

May 21, 2024 08:14 PM IST

This ongoing legal saga highlights the broader issues in India’s copyright framework and the balance between creators' rights and producers' ownership.

Shakespeare once wrote, “If music be the food of love, play on.” Ilaiyaraja might amend this quote to say, “Play on, provided you get my permission.”

Ilaiyaraja has been composing music for films since 1974 PREMIUM
Ilaiyaraja has been composing music for films since 1974

In recent years, the renowned composer Ilaiyaraja has become as famous for his legal battles as for his melodies. Over the last decade, he has diligently worked to secure ownership rights over his numerous compositions. This very month, he sent a legal notice to the producers of the Rajnikanth film Coolie for using his song “VaVa Pakkam Va” from the movie Thanga Magan in the film’s promotional material without his permission.

But, why does Ilaiyaraja need to fight for rights over his compositions when everyone knows he is the composer? The answer lies in the intricacies of copyright law. As a music composer for films, referred to as "cinematograph films" in the Copyright Act, the ownership of songs becomes a legal grey area. Does the producer, who creates the platform for various artists to display their talents, own the songs, or does the music composer, who creates the music, hold the rights? Ilaiyaraja, through numerous litigations, is adamantly claiming that the composer is the first owner of the song.

A history of disputes

Ilaiyaraja has been composing music for films since 1974. In 1981, Echo Recordings was started by Mr. Subramanyam. Echo Recordings purchased "sound recordings" from various producers of Ilaiyaraja's songs, eventually acquiring rights to hundreds of his compositions. However, a fallout occurred between Echo and Ilaiyaraja.

From 2010 onwards, Ilaiyaraja entered into agreements with different companies to sell his "ownership rights" in his composed songs. With multiple parties claiming ownership over the same music, conflicts were inevitable, leading to numerous lawsuits with Ilaiyaraja as the common figure.

In 2010, Ilaiyaraja initiated criminal proceedings against Echo, accusing them of infringing on his copyright and cheating him. The primary issue in the FIR was non-payment of royalties. However, the Madras High Court noted that the matter was being adjudicated by a civil court and quashed the FIR.

Ilaiyaraja: Court decisions

On June 4, 2019, a single judge of the Madras High Court, in M/s. Agi Music Sdn Bhd v. Ilaiyaraja and Ors issued a joint order in several civil suits contesting the copyright rights of Ilaiyaraja's music. The judgment concluded that the moral rights of the compositions vested with Ilaiyaraja, but the "sound recordings" as used in the film vested with the producer, who had conferred the rights to Echo Recordings. This meant that while the song in the film, including its picturisation and lyrics, belonged to the producer, Ilaiyaraja, as the author, could take action if a third party distorted, mutilated, or modified the songs in a way that harmed his reputation. The court also noted that the extent of a composer's control over the music depended on the agreement with the producer. Given Ilaiyaraja's stature, the court concluded he could not be deemed an employee of the producer, limiting the producer's rights to use the music only as part of the film's sound recording.

The following year, on February 13, 2020, the Madras High Court ruled against Ilaiyaraja in M/s. Indian Record Manufacturing Co. Ltd v. Agi Music and Others. Indian Record Manufacturing (IRM) sued Ilaiyaraja and Agi Music based on a press release indicating Ilaiyaraja's sale of rights to Agi Music for several of his pre-2000 songs. IRM had previously acquired rights to those songs from the producers and argued that the producers were the first owners of the songs, as Ilaiyaraja had composed them under their engagement. Ilaiyaraja contended that the producer's right is a composite right to the entire film that cannot be disintegrated and assigned in pieces. The court rejected this contention, holding that the producer is the first owner of a sound recording in a film. It noted that a composer needed to prove that the producer had relinquished ownership rights to claim them.

Ongoing legal struggles

In February 2022, Ilaiyaraja secured an interim stay against the 2019 order of the single judge in M/s Agi Music v. Ilaiyaraja. He questioned the order's validity, arguing that it misinterpreted the Copyright Act and that the court lacked jurisdiction to decide the commercial suits.

Echo Recordings also challenged the 2019 judgment, arguing that the single judge wrongly conferred moral and special rights to Ilaiyaraja. The Madras High Court, while admitting the appeal, made all transactions entered into by Ilaiyaraja with streaming platforms subject to the proceedings' outcome, which it adjourned to June. The court questioned how a song could be distinguished from its lyrics or singers, and whether each artist could claim a separate copyright.

Impact on copyright law

The decision in this case will significantly impact the development of copyright laws in India. The Copyright Act was intended to protect the creations of individuals, whether they are singers, artists, writers, or composers. However, these rights exist within a system of hierarchies and power imbalances. While the 2012 amendment was introduced to safeguard creators, it took a composer of Ilaiyaraja’s stature to ask, "Whose song is it anyway?"

Parijata Bharadwaj, a lawyer and researcher based in New Delhi, co-founded the Jagdalpur Legal Aid Group that offered legal services to adivasis in Chhattisgarh. The views expressed are personal.

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