The Cheat Sheet

A composer, a singer and the murky world of copyrights

JINOY JOSE P | Updated on January 15, 2018



This time, I know what you’re singing!


Ilayaraja songs!

Well, it is unfortunate that the legendary Ilayaraja has sent a legal notice to singer SP Balasubrahmanyam, asking him to stop singing his compositions because he feels SPB has violated copyright.

The debate has spawned several questions, including the issue of ownership of collective creative works such as songs and movies.

Frankly, who owns a song?

To be fair, copyright law in India is a sticky subject. In a way, it’s like the Mahabharata. You can find everything you want to find in it; the trick is to know where to look. So, almost every stakeholder finds clauses and rules that justifies his/her motive. And in most cases — in Raja’s, too — such claims lead to a torrent of confusion and legalese.


A better way to deal with creative compositions — which are unlike, say, a computer or the incandescent bulb, and serve the community differently, at a more cognitive level — is to make the right an all-party affair. In Raja’s case, he has a right to his share of profits from songs he composes. When SPB makes a buck from singing Raja’s compositions at big-ticket concerts abroad, a share of the revenue should ideally go to the latter, too.

Oh, is it not the movie’s producer who owns these songs!

He does, too. Here the issue is suitably complex, because this is not a private, commercial firm that has sued someone for performing copyrighted property. SPB is not a third party; he voiced these songs. Ideally, the lyricist should also have share here. That’s why experts believe the way to go would be the multi-party rights model. Or, just leave it all to the community.


Earn your profits for a stipulated period, then apply the Creative Commons licence to them so that anyone can use these ‘products’ as they want.

Creative Commons?

In case you are new to the idea, this is what it is: Creative Commons (CC) was founded in the US in 2001, with the backing of the Center for the Public Domain, a non-profit group that has experts in copyright laws, technology, finance, and philanthropists.

Interesting, tell me more...

The first CC licence was issued in December 2002. Interestingly, these licences were modelled on or inspired by the Free Software Foundation’s GNU General Public License, which is widely used in the world of computing. As the name suggests, Creative Commons helps creators offer their work for the greater common good. They can licence their works for free, for use in non-commercial purposes; or, with attribution, even in commercial ones. Say, Raja has put his songs under a CC licence, it will allow everyone, including SPB, to perform his songs while duly attributing their rights to the composer.

But why would anyone want to lose all that money?

Well, several musicians, artistes, writers, technologists have done it. One must understand that certain things are beyond mere profiteering, especially when it comes to producing and sharing creative works. Globally, Wikipedia is a shining example of CC licensing.

Are we talking about ‘Copyleft’ here?

That’s another successful movement. Copyleft is widely used in the IT sector now. Several independent communities are sharing their inventions with the public using copyleft principles and CC. In fact, what matters is how much a creator chooses to control and monetise one’s creations. Every country has a complex web of rules that will make life miserable for those who want to copy and share. So, it’s up to creators to say when they feel ‘full’. And as the Ilayaraja episode has shown, that’s a very subjective decision.

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Published on March 22, 2017

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