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From Ilaiyaraaja to AI — a song and dance about copyrights

From Ilaiyaraaja to AI — a song and dance about copyrights

If the ownership and rights of human-created music as intellectual property evoke anxiety and controversy, the advent of AI-generated music raises even more complex questions.

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Last Updated : 01 June 2024, 05:44 IST
Last Updated : 01 June 2024, 05:44 IST
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The fact that Ilaiyaraaja, a musical genius who has brought joy to millions with his compositions, dares to ask for his fair share of dues is riling many. The notion that their demi-god can even think about money is unsettling for some.

 Ilaiyaraaja, a renowned composer who has written music for over 1,000 films and performed in over 20,000 concerts, is currently engaged in legal battles against those using his tunes without permission. Social media reactions suggest he should chill, with some claiming that using his music in other films is a form of homage. Some accuse him of greed for sending legal letters to producers, such as those of the film Manjummel Boys, for using his tunes.

 Since 2017, Ilaiyaraaja has been fighting against unauthorised use of his music. He has prevented vocalists including his good friend, late S P Balasubrahmanyam from singing his songs at concerts, and stopped karaoke software Smule from using his instrumentals, citing Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) infringement.

 Critics argue that his actions are driven by personal wealth accumulation. His actions are not merely about claiming financial dues, but about asserting his rights and rewards as a creator. The question of who owns a song is a complex and contentious one. Is it the film producer who finances the project and pays the music composer, lyricist, and singer? Is it the music director who crafts the composition, or the lyricist who pens the words?

 According to the Copyright Act of 1957 in India, the producer is considered the first owner of the copyright. This means that the producer holds the primary rights to the music created for the film. The logic behind this is that the producer initiates the creation of the work, finances it, and thus, is entitled to its ownership.

 However, this legal framework often places composers and lyricists in a challenging position. While they are the creative forces behind the music, their rights are secondary to those of the producer. This can lead to situations where the artistes have limited control over how their work is used and distributed. For instance, even if a composer or lyricist creates a piece of music, they might not have the authority to prevent its unauthorised use if they do not hold the copyright. Ilaiyaraaja's legal battles highlight these complexities.

 On April 24, the Madras High Court ruled that Ilaiyaraaja cannot claim sole rights to his discography, which includes over 4,500 songs, because the lyrics are an integral part of each song. The two-judge bench concluded that the 80-year-old composer holds rights only to the melody.

 These disputes underscore a broader issue within the Indian music industry. The current legal structure, while clear in its designation of the producer as the first owner, does not always protect the interests of the artistes who create the work. This can discourage innovation and creativity, as artistes may feel disempowered and undervalued.

 Revisiting and potentially reforming these laws could help strike a better balance between producers' financial interests and creators' rights. Ilaiyaraaja's stand brings to light the urgent need for reforms that can ensure a fairer distribution of rights and benefits within the music industry.

 For many artistes, this means not only a loss of revenue but also a lack of control over their creations. The contradiction in old law and current environment discourages innovation and investment in new works, as creators cannot reliably reap the rewards of their labour. Furthermore, high-profile cases like Ilaiyaraaja’s could push for necessary reforms, and can lead to stronger protections and better mechanisms for dispute resolution, benefiting the entire creative community. The larger issue is about ensuring that creators can control and benefit from their work. In an industry where the scales are often tipped against individual artistes, his stance is a vital push towards a fairer system.

 If the ownership and rights of human-created music as intellectual property evoke such anxiety and controversy, the advent of AI-generated music raises even more complex questions. As AI becomes increasingly capable of composing music, who will own the music created by these algorithms?

 The issue of ownership in AI-generated music introduces a new set of challenges. In traditional music creation, clear roles exist: the composer, the lyricist, and the producer, each contributing and claiming rights accordingly. With AI, these roles blur. The AI itself, while the ‘creator’, lacks legal personhood and cannot hold copyrights. This situation leaves us to consider whether the ownership should lie with the developers who created the AI, the users who input parameters for the composition, or perhaps the entities that commission and finance the creation.

 Current copyright laws are ill-equipped to handle these nuances. They were designed in a world where human creativity was the sole source of artistic works. If AI can produce music indistinguishable from that created by humans, it could disrupt the music industry significantly. As AI begins to play a more significant role, legal frameworks need to adapt.

(Srinath Sridharan is a policy researcher and corporate adviser. X: @ssmumbai.)

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are the author's own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.

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