Ilayaraja and his legal battles explained: Who owns the rights to a movie song?

Last week, the High Court in Madras admitted a plea by composer and lyricist Ilayaraja, challenging a single-bench order that permanently barred him from asserting his copyrights in his own musical work and the master recordings of 30 movies from the 1980s.

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What is the case about?

The order that Ilayaraja challenged came in 2020. It was a lawsuit brought against him by Indian Record Manufacturing Company Ltd (INRECO) and others claiming full copyright ownership of the works music and sound recordings (masters) contained in these 30 films. INRECO claimed to have entered into written agreements with the respective film producers, who were the original owners of the musical works.

Ilayaraja maintained that he had the copyright in his musical work as a composer and author, which the film owner’s copyright could not attack. His lawyers said the digital rights came into existence after 1996 and the music company could not be allowed to own the rights to his work.

In 2020, the court ruled that INRECO was the copyright owner with the exclusive right to exploit and use Ilayaraja’s musical works, except that he had moral and literary rights to his works. The court ruled that when a song is part of a film, which is a composite work, the producer will be the copyright owner. At the same time, the court prohibited music companies from profiting from the composer’s songs on reality shows and radio channels without his permission.

Who owns a song, according to the law?

A song usually consists of three elements: lyrics, melody and voice. According to the Copyright Act 1957 (as amended in 2012), there is a clear distinction between owners and authors of copyright under the Copyright Act. The law gives the royalty right to lyricists and composers if the song plays outside of theaters. According to Article 2(d)(ii), a composer of musical works is an author and a lyricist is an author in relation to a literary work (lyrics) under Article 2(d)(i) and the producer in relation to a sound recording is an author under Section 2(d)(v). If the song is part of a movie and is to be played as is, the producer will own the song. The rule is the same if it is an album belonging to a record company.

Moreover, since a song has three different elements, the three can be registered separately as a literary work, a musical work and a performer’s rights. The song as a whole (the main sound recording) will always be with the producer (music label or movie producer).

If a restaurant, for example, is going to play songs by AR Rahman, or if Spotify is going to play a playlist by Shankar Ehsaan Loy, those will fall outside the scope of the films in which they exist. Composers, lyricists and singers will receive a percentage of the royalties as the restaurant charges customers who listen to the music while Spotify also earns through its subscribers.

It is essential that film and music production companies engage with third parties for the issuance of public performance licenses and the collection of royalties. Some of these organizations are Indian Performing Rights Society Limited and Phonographic Performance Limited among others.

Wasn’t Ilayaraja involved in copyright battles earlier?

Yes, from a time when all music rights belonged to music labels that he claimed didn’t pay him royalties. In 1981, with his friend MR Subramanian, he created his own company, Echo, which owned all his songs under a five-year contract. But in 1992, Ilayaraja left Echo and filed a lawsuit against him in 2014, claiming he had received no royalties through the sale of tapes. The judge ruled in favor of the company and only allowed Ilayaraja to control the non-theatrical use of his music.

In 2013, Ilayaraja filed a lawsuit against AGI Music, a Malaysia-based music company, which he said was exploiting his music beyond the five years to which it had acquired the rights. The court ruled in his favor, saying the deal was indeed for five years and not 10 as claimed by AGI.

In 2017, Illyaraja sent a legal notice to his longtime collaborator SP Balasubramanyam, asking him not to perform his music without his consent and license. This raised a debate with many arguing that along with the lyricist, Balasubramanyam also owned some of the songs he sang.

In 2018, a group of producers led by PT Selvakumar filed a lawsuit against Ilayaraja demanding that he pay part of the royalties he collects to the producers of the films in which these songs were originally. They argued that producers commission these songs and hire and pay a number of technicians to create them. A few months later, Ilayaraja said in a video statement, “I own the rights to all my songs…If you want to sing and perform my songs on stage without prior intimation, you are subject to legal action.

What next in the current case?

In his appeal, Ilayaraja argued that the single-judge bench erred in understanding the concept of authorship and ownership. He claimed that the order was passed without physical evidence and without interviewing the necessary parties (film producers).

A divisional bench comprising Judges M Duraiswamy and TV Tamil Selvi has now ordered notice of the defendants – INRECO in Chennai, Agi Music Sdn Bhd in Malaysia and Unisys Info Solutions Private Limited in Haryana – asking for their response.

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