Essential reading for Indian artists: The Madras HC’s judgment in the Ilaiyaraja copyright dispute

Essential reading for Indian artists: The Madras HC’s judgment in the Ilaiyaraja copyright dispute

Meera Emmanuel

While putting an end to a long-standing copyright dispute involving music maestro Ilaiyaraja, the Madras High Court recently made pertinent observations regarding the allocation of copyright when it comes to musical compositions.

Justice Anita Sumanth highlighted that a music composer’s copyright over his musical work is distinct from a film producer’s rights over sound recordings in a film.

Notably, the Court also highlighted that the author of a work retains moral rights over his compositions, which are recognised as an author’s special rights under Section 57 of the Copyright Act. These rights would subsist regardless of any contractual restriction.

The Court made the observations in a group of suits involving Ilaiyaraja and two music labels, Agi Music and Echo Recording Company.

Music Composer’s Rights v. Film Producer’s Rights

The Court ruled that a music composer would hold the copyright over his musical work, in respect of which he is the author and first owner. However, the copyright over a  musical work is distinct from the right over a sound recording in a film.

When it comes to film songs, Justice Sumanth highlighted that the producer of a film would hold the copyright over the sound recording, which is not just the music, but a conglomerate of various elements.

Irrespective of the medium of delivery, it is the sum-total of … [multiple] elements that constitute a ‘sound recording’ and it is in respect of this ‘sound recording’ that the producer lays claim, accorded to him in terms of the statute…”

Justifying this aspect, Justice Sumanth also noted,

“The producer of a cinematograph films is the brain behind the film, undertaking the risk and responsibility of the venture. It is in recognition of the enormous risk taken by the producer that statute vests in him the copyright in the entire film as well as the ‘sound recordings’ that constitute an intrinsic and integral part of the film.”

When a music composer assigns rights to his music to a film producer, what is being assigned is the musical work for the purpose of making the sound recording, 

“… the author continues to retain the right in the ‘musical work’ for all other intents and purposes, both moral as well as economic.”

The relevant provisions in this regard are Sections 13(4) and  17 of the Copyright Act. Section 13(4) recognises that separate copyrights exist in a sound recording. Section 17 identifies authors of a work as the the first owner to its copyright. The proviso to Section 17 lays down that first owners would not lose their copyright under Section 13 (4), regardless of any employment or other contract. The Court pointed out,

Section 13(4) specifically states that a ‘cinematograph film’ or a ‘sound recording’ contain separate copyrights in themselves, not militating against the independent and unique copyrights held by constituents of such film or recording, each of which is entitled to, and holds a copyright of its own…

...The provisions [Section 13 (4) and proviso to Section 17] protect the authors of original musical works, cinematograph films and sound recordings. There is an overlap in so far as a ‘cinematograph film’ contains within itself ‘sound recordings’ based on the ‘musical works’ of the composers that are distinct assets on their own, though wholly integrated into the cinematograph film itself.

The fact that these assets have been subsumed into the main asset, however, does not take away their individuality or claim to a separate copyright that is statutorily protected .… these rights  are concurrent and operate simultaneously as well as separately.

A Music Composer’s Moral Rights

Drawing from Article 6 of the Berne Convention, which deals with moral rights distinct from the economic rights of an artist, Section 57 of the Copyright Act confers certain special rights upon authors of copyrighted works. These rights are meant to aid artists in preserving the integrity of their work. The Court noted,

These special rights would subsist in a ‘work’ even after either full or partial assignment of the same and encompass claim to authorship of the work and the right to restrain or claim damages in respect of any distortion, mutilation, modification or any other act that would change the character of the said work, and that would be prejudicial to the honour or reputation of the author…

…The special rights encompassed under Section 57 are thus of a nature that would protect the author beyond the contractual terms binding parties and no party could seek to negate or defeat such special rights relying on the terms of a contract of assignment.

In view of the same, the Court held,

In my considered view, Section 57 bestows upon Mr. Ilaiyaraja, complete Moral rights over the ‘musical works’ authored by him. To elucidate, Mr.Ilaiyaraja is a ‘composer’ as defined in Section 2 (ffa) and thus, an ‘author’, as defined in Section 2 (d) of a ‘musical work’, as defined in Section 2 (p) of the Act. By virtue of such authorship, he is the ‘first owner’ of the copyright vesting in the ‘musical work’ in terms of Section 17.

By application of the Special right under Section 57(1)(a), he continues to lay claim to the authorship of his ‘musical works’ despite the assignment of the same for the purposes of the ‘sound recording’.”

On the disputes concerning Agi Music and Echo Recording Company

Agi Music’s case

Agi’s case involved agreements entered into between Ilaiyaraja’s late wife Jeevaraja and Agi in 2007. After Ilaiyaraja assigned his wife the copyright over his music compositions, she entered into a Sound Record Licensing Agreement (SLRA) and a Sub-Publishing Agreement (SPA) to allow Agi rights to print, publish and sell about 3800 Ilaiyaraja compositions, subject to payment of royalties.

Disputes eventually emerged between Agi and Ilaiyaraja. Agi contended that Ilaiyaraja had broken their agreement with respect to the exclusive rights conferred to Agi as per the 2007 agreements. Ilaiyaraja objected to Agi’s use of his music without the payment of royalties. Agi argued that they only stopped paying royalties in 2012, when Ilaiyaraja filed a suit against them.

In any case, Ilaiyaraja contended that the agreement with Agi had come to an end. He also contended that a 2010 addendum cited by Agi which extended the term and coverage of the 2007 agreement involved the forgery of his and his wife’s signatures.

Importantly, the SLRA and SPA specified a ten year agreement. However, the assignment agreement between Ilaiyaraja and his wife itself did not specify any time period for the assignment.

This being the case, Ilaiyaraja contended that the assignment had expired five years later on October 2011, in view of Section 19(5) of the Copyright Act. Section 19(5) provides for five-year period by default, if the agreement for assignment of a copyright was silent as to the period of the  assignment.

The Court found merit in this argument and dismissed Agi’s contention that the ten-year period stipulated in the 2007 agreements could be impliedly read into the assignment agreement as well.

Echo Recording company’s case

In Echo’s case, there were no direct agreements between Echo and Ilaiyaraja. Instead, Echo had entered into several agreements with the producers of films containing Ilaiyaraja’s music in order to exploit the music. Echo argued that while it paid royalties for the use of the music, it was in line with the terms set out in their agreements with the film producers.

Echo tried to argue that Ilaiyaraja could be viewed as the employer of a film producer when it comes to discerning the first owner of film songs. Proviso (c) to Section 17 of the Copyright Act lays down that the employer would be the first owner to a copyrighted work, if an employment contract exists.

However, the Court rejected this contention, inter alia citing the stature of Ilaiyaraja in the film industry. Justice Sumanth said,

I reject this contention outright. There is nothing to suggest an employer-employee relationship in this case vis-a-vis the music composer and the producer. The engagement of Mr.Ilaiyaraja, to my mind, is as a stand-alone professional, and his services, commissioned, as such.

In this backdrop, the Court opined that the appropriate provision applicable is Proviso (b) to Section 17, which deals with experts being commissioned to do work. In view of this provision, the Court eventually concluded that a film producer holds the copyright for sound recordings in a film.

In doing so, the Court rejected Ilaiyaraja’s contention that he held all exclusive rights over his compositions in any form. Justice Sumanth said,

At first blush, it is an extremely attractive argument and one that I am sorely tempted to accept. We, as a society, have not been kind to our creators and geniuses. The tendency is to place them on a pedestal and revere them while they are in their prime, while, simultaneously and ironically, finding every method possible to exploit their work to generate profits for corporate interests, to their exclusion. Many of India’s finest Artists thus languish in their old age, without any means of accessing the fruit of their labour. This is a deplorable situation and a clarion call for remedy.”

In view of Proviso (b) to Section 17 – meant to balance the rights of composers, producers and other entities – the Court ruled that producers would hold the copyright in sound recordings in films by default.  The Court added,

“…an inference otherwise would arise only if the author of the ‘musical work’ produces evidence of reservation of his right to such ‘sound recording.’”

Summary of Conclusions

The Court’s conclusions, in view of the facts and the law cited above can be summed up thus:

  • A music composer’s copyright is over his musical work, whereas a film producer is entitled to rights over sound recordings in the film, unless the music producer reserves his right to the sound recording.
  • A music producer is entitled to special, moral rights in regard to the ‘musical works’ composed by him upon which the ‘sound recordings’ in question are based, in line with Section 57 of the Copyright Act.
  • Ilaiyaraja’s special rights entitle him to claim authorship of his work, take all measures necessary to preserve the integrity and purity of his work, honour and reputation and exploit such ‘musical works’ in any manner as he may desire, only barring in the form of the connected sound recordings that are an integral part of the cinematograph films, for which copyright is held by the respective producers of the films.
  • Echo Recordings has obtained rights in regard to the ‘sound recordings’ comprised in the films covered under their agreements with film producers. Echo is entitled to exploit the same, specifically and strictly in the form and manner as contained in the respective cinematograph films only.
  • The case brought by Agi was dismissed in view of the expiration of their agreements concerning the use of Ilaiyaraja’s music.

Advocate P Radhakrishnan appeared for Ilaiyaraja, assisted by Advocate SP Vijayaraghavan and Advocates SK Rakhunathan and S Kingsten Jerald. Agi Music was represented by Advocate Anirudh Krishnan, assisted by Keerthikiran Murali. Echo Recording Company was represented by Advocate Satish Kumar, assisted by Advocate Gopika.

Read the Judgment:


Image taken from here.

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