Indian Musical Artists' Rights Clouded by Court Rulings

Courts rule against Indian Performing Right Society refusing radio airplay rights to song lyricists and composers.

NEW DELHI -- India's ongoing heated debate over revising copyright norms could be fuelled further in light of recent court judgements that have ruled against the Indian Performing Right Society (IPRS) which collects royalties on behalf of music composers and lyricists.

IPRS had filed cases against two radio broadcasters claiming royalties on radio airplay for songs created by its members which include well-known lyricists and composers.

In what is considered a setback to composers and lyricists, the 25 July ruling by the Bombay High Court in a case between IPRS and leading FM radio broadcaster Music Broadcast Private Ltd. stated that IPRS was not entitled to claim or demand royalty or license fees from a private FM channel for the recorded song and music it plays on its radio station.

Similarly, the 28 July ruling by the Delhi Court also favored a radio broadcaster, Synergy Media, with the judgement stating that once a license has been granted for the broadcast of a piece of recorded music, no separate license is needed for the authors' rights in the composition itself.

This implies that broadcasters will continue to pay only one license fees to Phonographic Performance Ltd. (PPL) that collects royalties in sound recordings on behalf of rights-owners, which, considering that the Indian music industry is dominated by film songs, includes music companies and major Bollywood banners.

The Indian film music industry has traditionally worked on a “work-for-hire” basis where film producers and banners buy all rights from composers, lyricists and performers for a one-off fee. Music rights are then sold by producers to record companies for whom PPL is the representing collecting agency leaving IPRS with little to administer outside of typical film deals. Since it has recpirocal agreements with international collecting agencies, IPRS also collects royalties for international repertoire in India.

The “work-for-hire” culture was further cemented with a 1977 Supreme Court judgment which held that the ownership of all underlying works that were incorporated into a movie vested with the film producer (the commissioner of the work), unless a contract provided otherwise.

Expectedly, the verdicts have once again ignited Bollywood's song creators who addressed a press conference in Mumbai Tuesday. One of Bollywood's most respected lyricists and former IPRS director Javed Akhtar said, “The verdicts are not compatible with the Copyright Act of India. The question now is not who the rights belong to. The entire existence of our rights is now being questioned. We are going to challenge this verdict.”

Explaining the importance of a composer's rights over a song, veteran music director Ravi Shankar Sharma gave the example of his case against the makers of Slumdog Millionaire for using his song “Darshan Do” from 1957 Hindi film Narsi Bhagat, “My song was used in Slumdog Millionaire without my permission and I sued them for 200 million rupees  ($4.5 million). However, in an out of court settlement, I was paid 2 million rupees ($45,000). The song they used was not composed for Slumdog Millionaire but for Narsi Bhagat. The biggest right is that of the creator.

Considering that India is in the process of amending its Copyright Act which is up for discussion in the ongoing session of Parliament in Delhi, the recent court verdicts have attracted international attention as well.

“The court decisions represent a major and unacceptable regression in the copyright protection being granted to authors and composers of musical works. They also represent a serious breach of India’s obligations under the Berne Convention. The implications are that the millions of dollars that foreign copyright societies have collected and distributed to Indian authors and composers would now be stopped by these two judgements.  On behalf of CISAC, I strenuously urge the Indian government to take immediate remedial measures to correct the wrong that will result from the outcome of these judgments," Robin Gibb, one of the founding members of super group Bee Gees and President of CISAC, the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers, said in a statement.

In its financial report for the year ending March 31 2010, IPRS said it collected 107.3 million rupees from domestic radio, up from ($1.8 million) in 2008-09. Without giving the amount sent to reciprocal overseas collecting societies, the IPRS report states that total license fee income was $9.5 million up from $6 million in 2008-09. 

But the pending amendments to the Copyright Act could offer a solution. One of the recommendations include a clause allowing composers and lyricists to retain their rights over their work. While the film's producer would be the “first owner” with respect to the music when it's used in a movie, the author would be considered first owner for all other purposes.

“There is a very urgent need to amend Indian copyright laws so that they adhere to international standards while giving song creators their due rights,” said Achille Forler who heads Mumbai-based music publishing firm Deep Emotions, a joint venture with Universal Music Publishing Group.