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Indian copyright law provides for version recordings. A look at the rule book, and how the outcome of the Lahari-Sony case could change the complexion of the version recording market
"Cover versions happen not just in India, but all over the world," says Vijayabhaskar, veteran composer who has represented the music industry on several decision-making committees.
"The law so far not been very stringent about them," he told The Music Magazine. So what happens when the original copyright holder protests against a cover version? The court, says the composer, orders payment of compensation, but the label that made the cover version will have made much more money and cheerfully pays the fine.
When a song becomes popular, other labels cash in on it by making version recordings. These are mostly sung by artistes who imitate the original singers. In the case of A R Rahman Live in Dubai, the album at the centre of the Lahari-Sony Music controversy, Rahman, S P Balasubramaniam and Hariharan, singers of the original tracks, have again sung their songs for a live concert.
"If there is one label that has suffered because of cover versions in India," an industry source said, "it is HMV". The Gramophone Company of India, as HMV is also known, has been in the business almost as long as the film industry in India, and owns the copyright for thousands of vintage recordings. Other labels saw an opportunity in the nostalgia niche, and started making cover versions of old hits. Thus, much-loved hits of Lata, Kishore Kumar, Hemant Kumar, R D Burman, S D Burman and Madan Mohan, to name a few, came to be re-sung and compiled by labels that did not own the rights to the original recordings.
One advantage of cover versions is that buyers get, for instance, the best of R D Burman's songs on one album, whereas if they wanted to buy the originals, they would have been forced to buy several cassettes or CDs.
"Some labels cleverly targeted the rural market," says a wholesale music distributor. "There, people don't go into details of who has sung the songs or whether it is the original soundtrack. If they like a tune, they would just like to listen to it, and are thrilled if it is combined with more of their favourite tunes".
Version recordings are not illegal. Sony Music says A R Rahman Live in Dubai is recorded under Section 52 of the Indian Copyright Act. What does the act, passed in 1957 and amended in 1999, say?
Section 52 clearly provides for cover versions. Its section (j) says that a sound recording shall not constitute an infringement of copyright if it is made with the licence or consent of the owner of the copyright.
The rule stipulates that such versions can be made "two calendar years after the end of the year in which the first recording of the work was made" and that the person making the sound recordings give notice of his intention, and pay the copyright holder "in the prescribed manner ... royalties in respect of all such sound recordings to be made by him, at the rate fixed by the Copyright Board".
Another clause states that "the person making such sound recordings shall allow the owner of rights or his duly authorised agent or representative to inspect all records and books of account relating to such sound recording".
"These are tricky issues," says Vijayabhaskar. "No company shows its real accounts to any outsider".
If these rules are not complied with, the Copyright Board can direct the maker of the version recording "to cease from making further copies and, after holding such inquiry as it considers necessary, make such further order as it may deem fit, including an order for payment of royalty".
Lahari has been saying Sony Music did not take its permission to record and distribute songs from Roja, Indira and Kadal Desam. The controversial album features four songs from these films, including the mega hits Mustafa mustafa, sung by Rahman himself, and Kadal rojave.
"These are hot-selling titles," says a Lahari spokesman. "When Sony sells a version recording, it affects our sales".
Sony Music has a classy catalogue in India. Its Sony Nad series features excellent recordings from the classical masters. The label also brings into India genres like acid jazz which appeal only to a miniscule minority. Music industry insiders insist Sony wouldn't risk its international reputation by doing an illegal version recording. The dispute is now before a court, and whatever the judges say could permanently change the complexion of the Indian version recording market.
There is also the larger issue -- the ethics of copyright. Many believe copyright is, like patents, an extreme capitalistic assertion. "Artistes should normally feel honoured when other artistes sing their compositions, but the philosophy of copyright could well say one day that you should pay the composer or the label a fee each time you want to hum a few lines," says Vasantha, student and music lover.
Right now, the law is clear on that aspect. You can copy anything if it is for pesonal, academic and non-commercial use, but once commerce comes into the picture, the lawyers will step in with their tomes.
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