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Copyright in Classical Music

M V Swaroop ( is a lawyer and Carnatic flautist based in Chennai.

Composition and improvisation are the essential aspects of Indian classical music. Our copyright law frowns upon both.

In recent weeks, the Carnatic music world was jolted by a hypothetical controversy: an allegation, completely unfounded, that prominent Carnatic musicians were singing compositions of the 18th-century saint–composer Tyagaraja, who composed largely on Lord Rama, by replacing the word “Rama” with “Jesus.” As an intellectual property lawyer and a Carnatic musician, I found myself at the intersection of allegations of both, Christian “appropriation” and copyright violation. Copyright in musical and lyrical works extends for 60 years from the death of the author. Thus, the simple legal answer to whether changing Tyagaraja’s compositions constitutes copyright violations is that it doesn’t.

But, Indian classical music raises other deeper questions for copyright law.

The two main facets of Indian classical music are composition and improvisation. Similar to interpretation of jazz standards, a composition is often a hook for exploration. As The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz succinctly puts it, 

“listeners … appreciate skilful arrangement and inventive improvisation because they know the original work.” This improvisation is spontaneous and varies with each performance, depending on the performer’s mood, the venue, and even the accompanying musicians. While learning to create this music, performers go through two main stages: They first learn to imitate other musicians, and then, embellish this imitation with their own musicianship.

The Indian Copyright Act, 1957, frowns upon both these facets of imitation and embellishment. Borrowing heavily from British copyright law existing at the time (the irony), the act is based on a system built for Western popular music, which affords economic benefits to both imitation and embellishment. Indian classical music, however, differs in both ethics and economics.

Most Indian classical music composers (like Tyagaraja) have been songwriters. They often create both the musical and the lyrical work. Most Indian classical music concerts are unrehearsed. Musicians perform, interpret and embellish earlier composers’ works. Placing them behind the wall of copyright tends to fossilise them.

Practically, of course, composers rarely want to restrict the performance of their work. However, the protection afforded by copyright law is misused these days by recording companies. When prominent musicians record in a studio, they are made to sign standard form contracts that give away all copyrights, including the music and lyrics of the compositions, which are either in the public domain or owned by someone else in the first place. When later musicians sing this same composition and upload it to their YouTube pages, the recording company—using YouTube’s “intelligent” bot to match and recognise—makes a “copyright strike” and takes down such videos. Recording companies sometimes also “whitelist” these videos, that is, run ads on the videos and claim the revenue earned. If the owner of the sound recording is a premium customer of YouTube, poor artistes are left with the unenviable prospect of litigation to recover their legitimate videos.

The act also gives composers the sole right to make adaptations of their works. The definition of “adaptation” is wide enough to include any kind of improvisation around the work. The idea that an Indian classical music performer must seek permission from the composer to improvise on the composition is antithetical to the culture surrounding the music. Even though practitioners and listeners speak of hoary traditions going back millennia, Indian classical music thrives on adaptations. For instance, I learn a composition from the notation guide made by my guru, the late flautist N Ramani, and then interpret it, in a live concert, in a manner that showcases my musicianship. My guru, who made the notation, would have done the same to his guru’s interpretation. The act does not approve of this.

What Indian classical composers do want, on the other hand, is attribution. They want listeners to know that their works are being performed. They ensure this by including a mudra in each of their compositions, a signature of sorts, woven into the lyrics. Conversely, they do not want other people’s works to be attributed to them. This happens too. Many compositions of Tyagaraja and Muthuswami Dikshitar are referred to as “spurious,” meaning that some modern composer, in the hope of the work gaining popularity, has used the older composer’s mudra. The copyright law does not address this aspect at all.

This brings us to the question of economics. If compositions are to be in the public domain for free interpretation and performance, how are composers compensated for their efforts? Indian classical music is a performing art. The stage is the heart and soul of the music. The music is such that for one to be able to compose music, one must be capable of performing. The economics of classical music are built around stage performances, within and outside India, not royalties from compositions and recordings. It is essential that the so-called protectors of Indian classical music from its alleged “defiling,” actually attend concerts. At the same time, it is also essential that the copyright law be reframed to ensure that the stage remains a vibrant space.


Updated On : 31st Aug, 2018


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