A landmark ruling on music royalties

Some of the best music copyright laws exist in the United States, and these are a model for contracts worldwide.

Composer Ilaiyaraaja has won a landmark judgment over music rights with the Madras high court ruling he has a right over songs composed by him over a long film career. The verdict may be on specific cases over the right to his music with a group of Malayasia-based labels, but it will resonate through the music industry regarding copyright and music royalties. The well-known film music director who has composed the music for over 4,500 songs was fighting a pitched battle where he stood up for the right to his music wherever it is played, including in concerts and public places. So sweeping was his demand that he had a run-in with music legend S.P. Balasubramaniam, who used to sing many of his songs in overseas concerts. For months there was a standoff between these two personalities, which was resolved only recently with the singer agreeing to pay royalty for singing songs composed by Ilaiyaraaja for films.

Some of the best music copyright laws exist in the United States, and these are a model for contracts worldwide. Consider someone like Jay Z, rap singer and husband of Beyonce, who was declared the first rap music billionaire. Such success couldn't have come without proper royalty payments by companies that sign up for mechanical royalties (for all formats like vinyl, CD, digital downloads, streaming), and public performance, synchronisation (syncing with visual media) and print music royalties. It's only right that the unique creative abilities of composers/singers be recognised, and they be allowed to get a fair or agreed share of the monetisation process in a very complex setting where creative work is reproduced. Master rights and publishing rights govern what royalties songwriters, publishers, record labels, etc. give or get. There are too many shades of grey in the music and film industry worldwide thanks to digital piracy and the illegal reproduction of music.

It is fascinating that a composer should lay a wholesome claim to his music as performing rights should also belong to the writer of lyrics as well as the playback singer who recorded the song for films, besides the film producer who had paid all the artistes for their creative work for his film. The industry is still divided over how the royalty system should work, specially as technology is still evolving. Negotiating upfront in legally-binding agreements is the best way to ensure a reasonable and just method for sharing of royalties. The period of contract is important as the ownership of intellectual property rights by heirs as time passes adds even greater complexity. For instance, do royalties apply to Saint Thyagaraja's compositions or for that matter Nobel laureate Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore's songs and music? The larger viewpoint is also that once creativity is out in the open, there should not be any restrictions on people enjoying them.

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