High court case won by Ilaiyaraja misinterpreted; not to change royalty dynamics as widely reported
An advocate reasons that the distinction between a 'musical work' and a 'sound recording' has been totally ignored by the media, thereby resulting in a gross misinterpretation of the judgment
Earlier this week, there were widespread reports in various media platforms that the Madras High Court had prohibited the musical labels from monetising the songs of music composer Ilaiyaraja through TV reality shows, concerts, and online music channels, among others, without his prior permission, in a milestone judgment.
We reached out to Swaroop Mamidipudi, an advocate practising in copyright law, to know more about the legal implications of this suit, and its potential impact on other musicians. At the outset, Swaroop makes it clear that the judgment is in no way a 'milestone' as the media has so far claimed, as it "doesn't change the existing royalty dynamics even a little." He reasons that the important distinction between a 'musical work' and a 'sound recording' has been totally ignored by the media, thereby resulting in a gross misinterpretation of the judgment.
Swaroop starts off by saying that there are two parts to this case, the first part of which involves music labels like Echo Music and Giri Traders. "These labels had originally purchased the rights to the sound recordings of many Ilaiyaraaja songs. The thing to remember here is the distinction between a musical work and a sound recording. The 'musical work' is the composition itself; it's the tune. So, when Ilaiyaraaja composes a tune, he automatically becomes its owner," he says.
On the other hand, the tune, with the musical arrangements, recorded for a film, becomes the 'sound recording'. This is not owned by the composer, but by the producer. The film producer, in turn, has sold these sound recordings to Echo, Giri, and other such music labels, which are quoted in the suit, but not mentioned by the media," he says.
So, according to Swaroop, the recent judgment has now confirmed that the labels hold the rights to these sound recordings, and can do as they deem fit with them, without having to pay anything to Raja. "This is because that sound recording was never owned by Ilaiyaraaja in the first place. These labels can sell it to anyone, and monetise it by publishing on online musical platforms. All Raja owns here is his musical work, or in other words, the tune. So, if he wants to make a remix of that tune, he can do it. If he wants to perform it in concerts or public functions, he can do it. If someone else wants to use his tune for a song, or some singer wants to sing his song in an event, they have to take approval from him," he explains.
Swaroop says that the second part of the case involves a Malaysian music label called Agi Music. "There were a few sound recordings owned by Ilaiyaraaja himself in the first place (when the deal was made with the producer). Raja had then sold these to his wife, Jeeva Raja." Swaroop calls this pact an 'assignment agreement', meaning the agreement is assigned to X for Y number of years. "In the case of Raja, this assignment agreement, however, did not specify the number of years. Now, there's a clause in the copyright act which reads, 'If there is no period mentioned in the assignment agreement, the period will be assumed by the law as being five years'," he says.
Agi Music apparently purchased rights to some musical recordings from Raja's wife for a period of ten years, but Raja's wife only had them for five. "So, what the judgment has now said is that after the five years, the rights to those sound recordings should rightfully go back to Ilaiyaraaja. AGI's rights have now been declared null and void for these recordings," he says. The simplest takeaway is that the rights for the few songs, which were originally with Raja, have now been reverted to him. "The statement by Ilaiyaraaja's legal advisor Pradeep Kumar should have included this important fact," he adds.
So, according to Swaroop, there's absolutely nothing in the judgment to suggest that Ilaiyaraaja will get a royalty for all his songs, when they get reproduced in any format.
We ask him about the royalty money that is being collected by Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL) for the usage of songs/musical tracks in events such as weddings and commercial establishments like malls, restaurants, and Ilaiyaraja's positioning in it. "The pooled amount will be split among the music labels that have signed a deal with the PPL, including the members of South Indian Music Companies Association (SIMCA), based on the market shares and the audited data. The composers will get the share from the labels if the agreement between them is for royalty payments every year," he says. We point out Ilaiyaraja's claim that he is not getting any share from these associations, and he replies, "What has happened in Ilaiyaraaja's case is that Raja had probably got a lump sum for permitting the producer to make a sound recording of his musical work at the time of signing the agreement, instead of opting for royalty shares."
So, as it stands, this particular judgment, unlike as otherwise reported, does not change the status quo with regard to royalty rights, and how these rights affect musicians.