Nuance, insight and respecting copyright

Recent months have seen theatrewallahs engage in much collective (and public) soul-searching over questions of intellectual property, whether it be the ethics of appropriation or the monies associated with copyright or even the very nature of creative ownership (of, say, works created in collaboration). Sensing the mood of the season, Prithvi Theatre organised a well-attended panel discussion earlier this week titled, ‘Copyright: The What, When, Why & How!’ In a session moderated by actor-director Rajit Kapur, the noted screenwriter and lyricist Javed Akhtar, who has assiduously been at the forefront of the royalty debate, delivered a keynote address. The panelists included Rakesh Nigam and Rajat Kakkar, chief whips at the Indian Performing Right Society Limited (IPRS) and Phonographic Performance Ltd (PPL) respectively. Although these organisations have been around for decades, it’s only recently that their presence has been felt even in the relatively niche realm of Indian theatre.

Championing a cause

Prior to 2012, artistes in the music industry were frequently made to sign away their copyright privilege to music labels in favour of upfront payments, thus effectively (and exploitatively) being off-loaded the gravy train of royalties. In 2012, thanks to efforts of champions like Akhtar and lawyer Amit Sibal (also on this panel), among many others, it was unequivocally passed into law that the ‘first owners’ of a piece of music (the lyricist and the composer) could never surrender their right to royalty, and any contracts and bonds to the contrary would be null and void. This stipulation was achieved after years of litigation and parliamentary intervention. The IPRS collects revenues for artistes holding the intellectual property, if they are registered members (of which there are around 4,400 at the time of writing). Founded in 1969, the IPRS’ first wave of members included composers like Naushad, Rahul Dev Burman, Usha Khanna, and lyricists like Majrooh Sultanpuri and Shailendra. Founded in 1941, the PPL deals with the stakeholders who have performed and recorded a piece of music — the singers, musicians, and publishers. There are other performance rights agencies that come into play based on the music portfolios they manage.

Where theatre comes into this is how music is incorporated into live performance, often without permissions being sought (yours truly is as guilty of this as the next person). The prevailing notion of committing what one might term a ‘victimless crime’ actually falls foul of copyright laws. The processes are now pretty clear: if a piece of recorded music is being used in a play then licenses have to be acquired from both the PPL and IPRS. If an existing track is performed live, then the IPRS needs to be paid. If the play utilises original music, then too, if the creators are registered with the IPRS, royalties will be due to them. Often, the use of the music, in terms of length or context, could dictate the tariffs imposed. On perusal of the organisations’ websites, these costs are not entirely substantial, but for some theatre groups, they add an overhead to already tight budgets. Which is why communication between monetisation agencies and theatre practitioners is extremely significant.

Checks and balances

The impasse between the two worlds was visible in one animated exchange during the session. Director Sunil Shanbag drew attention to the theatre industry being far from monolithic, and the motivations and working realities of those engaged in the performing arts were perhaps not being taken into cognisance to the widest extent possible. Akhtar appeared to take Shanbag’s plain speak as an affront to his efforts to safeguard artistes’ rights. Nigam clarified that the IPRS and the PPL were different creatures than the rights management agencies of yore. “We definitely try to represent the spirit of owners, so we are entrenched within the creative industry,” he said. What did emerge was a sense that current practices within theatre would need to irrevocably change without question. The eco-system operates in a precarious space in which subsidy and exploitation go hand in hand. For Prithvi proprietor Kunal Kapoor, always keen to instil best practices into those groups performing at his venue, this dialogue is a step in the right direction. Performances staged at the venue already undergo various checks and rigours, more so than at other spaces.

For those attending, the evening was a treasure trove of nuances and insights. Although the discussion around the use of music took centrestage, the play as a literary work deserving of protection also came within the ambit of the forum.

Points to note: an author’s inalienable right to be identified as the creator of a work; and the moral right that a work, even in authorised adaptation, should not be ‘mutilated’ (always a contentious notion) in a way that might compromise an author’s dignity; and the regrettable fact that there is still no provision for statutory royalties for dramatic works.

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Printable version | May 28, 2020 5:45:04 AM |

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