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No Roja without thorns 
  Manohar Naidu: taking on Sony

Manoharan Naidu of Lahari Recording Company alleges Sony Music filched his tunes for its hit album A R Rahman Live in Dubai. In this exclusive interview, he reveals why he got Sony's stocks raided, and why he feels 'hurt'

Manoharan Naidu, the usually mild-mannered Managing Director of Lahari Recording Company, is an angry man. His company has lodged a copyright violation complaint against Sony Music, and on October 26, police raided Sony Music's Bangalore office and godown, besides two high-profile shops, and seized cassettes and CDs worth Rs 1.75 lakh.

A R Rahman Live in Dubai, produced and distributed by Sony Music Entertainment India Limited, features four songs from films whose audio rights Lahari owns.

The Music Magazine met Naidu on 29 November, between his meetings, and he spoke for over an hour about the issues at stake. We also tried to contact Sony Music, but their Bangalore office wasn't taking any phone calls.

"Of course, I'm angry. But there's also a deep sense of hurt. Way back in 1996-97, I was instrumental in getting a duplicate cassette racket in Bangalore busted. Sony, HMV, Tips... all these labels were being duplicated and two lorry loads of material were seized. Now, how can Sony do this to me?" Naidu demands.

Terming Sony's cover version as a "betrayal of trust" and a "grave violation of ethics", Naidu is emphatic that he will fight this battle to the finish. "Cover versions are not new. But doing them is certainly wrong," he says, addressing the tricky issue of the Copyright Act and its interpretation.

But aren't cover versions common? T-Series routinely brings out albums where artistes re-render old, and sometimes not-so-old, hits? Wasn't Anuradha Paudwal routinely singing songs from yesteryear? And didn't that label make cover versions of the work of composers like R D Burman and Madan Mohan?

"I think there is confusion on this aspect of copyright and very few people really understand it," Naidu avers. He claims to have done his homework and so have his legal eagles. "Bringing out a cover version is wrong. Very, very wrong. Because then, you are depriving a whole lot of creative artistes of their livelihood. You are depriving them and their families of royalty and you are undermining their creativity. Even if they have a courtesy line that gives credit, it is wrong. There are no two ways about that," he states, flatly.

Lahari's case, he says, is strengthened by Sony mentioning in fine print that the rights to these songs are owned by Lahari. Songs from the films Kaadal Desam, Roja and Indira are included in the double album, featuring Rahman, Hariharan, S P Balsubramaniam and other big stars performing live.

Naidu's tone is measured, but he stresses every syllable, "I have no qualms, absolutely no fears in taking on Sony. Do you think they would have spared me had I done the same to them? Had Lahari done a cover version of Michael Jackson's chartbusters, would they have kept quiet? Why should I be intimidated by their size or reputation?"

The album in question Where does the composer of the four songs in question, A R Rahman, figure in this tangle? "Nowhere," replies Naidu. "Simply because I believe that Rahman had no hand in it. I have implicit trust and faith in him. It's Sony which is to blame. Songs sung at a public concert cannot be recorded and used for commercial distribution. Sony has erred. deliberately or not, I don't know. But, the fault is theirs."

For Naidu, this is more than a commercial or legal wrangle. It's ideological, he claims. "I don't deny that it hurts to know that someone else is raking in money for my efforts. But, it also matters that today if a music giant with an international presence can do it, tomorrow someone else will. What about Lahari's 65,000 songs. Do I have to sit and watch them all being happily lifted?"

Promising to open a can of worms soon ("There are some major companies that have done the same with Lahari, but I'm waiting for the right time to go public with it"), he adds that as long as serious efforts are not made to intrepret and implement the Copyright Act, the task of bringing offenders to book will remain Herculean.

His coffee has gone cold, but Naidu has other concerns. Like meeting the Law Minister to address the issue of copyright infringement. "Sadly, the Copyright Board is not well represented. There are some people there who spend all their time downing cups of coffee!" That's the subject of the war. To get the music industry to join hands and fight "illegal practices". To look beyond targets and unsold stock. To fight unethical business practices. But what about the battle on hand? What is Sony's reaction to the Lahari FIR?

"Nothing! I hear rumours that pressure is being brought on the cops, but they've haven't got in touch with me."

Is Naidu willing to sit across the table and talk things out with Sony if and when that happens? "Why not? But, let's cross that bridge when we come to it. Right now, they haven't come to me. I'm discussing the case with my lawyers and we'll work out our strategy soon."

Lahari has been in the music business for 20 years, and with about 6,500 titles in the four southern languages and an aggressive only-Rs 20-a cassette strategy, rules the south Indian market.  Sony Music entered India in 1996-97 with Rahman's Vande Mataram, and has been steadily spreading its presence. Sony's Indian catalogue includes jazz, north Indian classical music and some Hindi film albums, and almost no southern content, which means that the two labels are not really fighting for the same space. 

But it isn't curtains on the controversy yet. There's certainly more drama in store. In an industry where there are no permanent enemies, one can only wait for Side B to unspool.

Kavitha Srinivas

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