Two of the tallest names in south Indian film music are locked in a belittling battle over copyright and royalty that has raised troubling questions about who really owns a film song.

Ilaiyaraaja has scored the music for over 1,000 films across Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu, Kannada and Hindi. SP Balasubrahmanyam has 50 years of playback singing behind him in various languages. The artists created magic together during their peak in the 1980s. So when Balasubrahmanyam embarked on a global tour to mark 50 years of playback singing, it seemed obvious that Illaiyaraaja’s songs would be featured in his repertoire.

By sending Balasubrahmanyam a copyright violation notice while the singer was touring the United States and debarring him from singing his songs on stage, Ilaiyaraaja has asserted his right to be identified as the sole owner of, and therefore profit earner, from his music.

Ilaiyaraaja’s copyright consultant, E Pradeep Kumar, told that a world tour involved vast sums of money, which were not being shared with the composer. “The idea is to ensure that no one takes the owner for a ride,” Kumar said.

The legal notice evoked sharp reactions, including one from Ilaiyaraaja’s brother, Gangai Amaran, who is also a composer. Amaran slammed his brother for “narrow-mindedness” and questioned whether Ilaiyaraaja had paid other composers, such as MS Viswanathan, when he performed their tunes in the early stages of his career.

Before he became a music director in 1976, Ilaiyaraaja was part of Balasubrahmanyam’s light music troupe. They performed compositions by Vishwanathan as well as by Hindi music legends such as Naushad, Madan Mohan and SD Burman.

The notice against Balasubrahmanyam is only the latest development in Ilaiyaraaja’s ongoing battle to secure total copyright over his creations. Despite significant changes to the Copyright Act in 2012, enforcing copyright remains a major task for artists.

In 2015, Ilaiyaraaja took four recording labels to court for violating copyright agreements and failing to pay royalties. In his petition, Ilaiyaaraja claimed that he was the absolute owner of his works, and that he had to be paid royalty if his compositions were to be used for commercial purposes. The Madras High Court granted an injunction restraining the companies from monetising his works.

Ilaiyaraaja did not stop there. In March 2015, he warned FM radio channels against broadcasting his music without permission. He even sent a notice to director Shankar for using a rearranged version of his song in a movie.

Copyright societies

While Ilaiyaraaja’s cases were being heard in Chennai, a case in the Delhi High Court had even greater implications for performing artists.

In 2016, the Event and Entertainment Management Association filed a petition against three major copyright societies for issuing licences on behalf of copyright owners for public performances. The charge against the societies was that their registration had expired, and they had no locus standi to continue collecting royalties. Among them was the Indian Performing Right Society Limited, the largest such body.

A copyright society, which is a private entity, plays the role of a mediator. According to the IPRS website, “The business of IPRS is to issue licences to users of music and collect royalties from them, for and on behalf of its members i.e. the composers.”

Over the years, there have been complaints about the overall inefficiency of the societies – a fact admitted by the government in the case before the Delhi High Court in December 2016.

The societies have been embroiled in several disputes over the years. In 2009, the Registrar of Copyrights wrote letters to some of the societies asking them why they had not released payments to composers and lyricists from the money made by mobile operators from the conversion of songs into ringtones.

In 2011, renowned lyricist Javed Akthar lodged a complaint with the Union Human Resource Development Ministry against copyright societies, alleging irregularities in distributing accumulated royalties.

Three years later, the government asked former judge Mukul Mudgal to study the workings of the societies. Mudgal, in turn, appointed Prabha Sridevan, former chairperson of the Intellectual Property Appellate Board, as a consultant. However, after the companies raised several technical questions over the appointments, Mudgal and Sridevan resigned from the inquiry committee.

In the absence of credible societies, the task of enforcing copyright falls on the creator – which is the situation Ilaiyaraaja finds himself in.

Role of producers

In 2015, Ilaiyaraaja organised a meeting of hundreds of orchestras in Chennai to discuss copyright and royalty. According to the IPRS rules, commercial public use of music is charged according to the nature and size of the venue and the scale of the performance. For example, as per the tariff set in October 2006, if you are a doctor with a 1,000 square foot clinic, you are expected to pay the IPRS Rs 1,000 per year as royalty for using a particular composition.

Ilaiyaraaja told the orchestra members that he had received an “abysmally small” amount of royalty from the copyright societies every year, said Lakshmanan, a member of the popular Lakshman Sruthi orchestra in Chennai, who was present at the meeting,

“He said that he was initiating action as he wants to make sure that the next generation does not suffer from improper implementation of copyright laws,” Lakshmanan added.

Does the copyright of film music belong to the composer or the filmmaker who has paid for the soundtrack?

Gregory Booth, Assistant Professor at the University of Auckland and an expert on Indian music cultures and copyright laws, said music directors are bound by contracts while composing movie soundtracks. Once the movie is out, the copyright belongs to the film’s producer, Booth said.

“What the composer is entitled to is 50% of the royalty,” he added. The rest of the 50% is split between the producer and the lyricist. This is where Ilaiyaraaja is being criticised.

Ilaiyaraaja’s claim depends on individual contracts he has signed with producers, and there is no one rule that fits all cases, said Prabha Sridevan. “If the contract said that he was giving the rights to the producer only for certain use, then the ownership would remain with him,” Sridevan said.

What about the lyricist?

If lyricists have at least some rights over film songs, what about the singers? Under Indian law, a singer gets a one-time payment and no share in royalty. The artist who makes a song come to life can expect to never earn any money from it once a recording has been completed.

Singers do have the freedom to assert their terms and conditions when they sign contracts, pointed out classical singer Shubha Mudgal. Depending on their stature, they could demand a share in royalties. “Though I do not sing much for films, I understand there are singers’ associations that help collect royalties,” she said.

The burden of asserting authorship over a product of creative collaboration rests on awareness about what is due to whom. “When you feel your rights are denied, it is important to raise your voice,” Mudgal said.

A song composition is the result of the joint energies not only of composers, singers and lyricists, but also of musicians in the orchestra. Like singers, these individuals do not get a share of the royalty.

Respected singers are better placed to assert their rights, added tabla player Aneesh Pradhan. “The negotiations have to happen on an equal footing,” he said.

According to IPRS Director Piraisoodan, who is also a Tamil lyricist, Ilaiyaraaja has every right to claim royalties, but his behavior could have been less confrontational and more mindful of the circumstances.

“SPB is on a world tour,” Piraisoodan pointed out. “This issue could have been settled amicably through dialogue.”

Piraisoodan has written the lyrics for several Ilaiyaraaja compositions, but he claimed that he had never been consulted by the musician on copyright or royalty. “Technically, I have a 25% share in royalty from each of those songs I wrote,” Piraisoodan said. “This arbitrariness is the problem.”

What if Piraisoodan were to send Illaiyaraaja a restraining notice against using his lyrics? “Would he hum the tunes without the words?” he said.