Guest Post: When (C) meets CM

Yesterday, the Hindu carried an article on what seems to be some egregious copyright claim over some classical Carnatic compositions. Much earlier, Sumathi had written a post for us on the bootlegging of some classical Carnatic performances (where, incidentally most artists turned a convenient blind eye) but I don’t think we’ve come across an instance like the present one where recording companies seem to be claiming copyright over classical Carnatic compositions and getting material taken down from Youtube! That too, despite the alleged infringer having taken permission from the artist and concert organizers. There is also currently a petition to Youtube, with over 1300 signatures as of the writing of this post, protesting this claim of copyright. On this note, we’re happy to bring you a wonderfully written guest post on the topic. S. A. Karthik does some law and sings some music. He hopes to do more of both. He can be reached at [email protected].

When (C) meets CM


(Author’s Note: This post is law lite and music heavy, the assumption being that the readers of this blog are conversant enough with the law of copyright to identify the issues and form their conclusions if supplied the facts.)

Relative to the rest of the music industry in India, South Indian classical music or Carnatic Music (CM) is a niche and insular space. But of late, this microverse is feeling the tremors resulting from its interaction with technology. And copyright law is the fault line.

CM is a blend of learnt compositions and practised, yet spontaneous, improvisations. The vast majority of Carnatic compositions take the form of lyrics (saahitya) set to melody (raaga) and rhythm (taala). For example, the popular piece ‘Vaataapi Ganapatim’ has lyrics set to the raaga Hamsadhvani and taala Adi.  Another well-known piece, ‘Endaro Mahaanubhaavulu’ has lyrics set to the raaga Sri and taala Adi.

CM compositions have identifiable composers. The most famous among them are ‘The Trinity’ – Tyagaraja (1767 – 1847), Syama Sastri (1762 – 1827) and Muttuswamy Dikshitar (1775 – 1835). The CM fraternity revere these contemporaneous figures as saints, especially Tyagaraja. His compositions are regarded as outpourings of devotion to his chosen god, rather than contrived cerebral exercises. Even today, the vast majority of songs performed at a CM kutcheri (concert) are drawn usually from the compositions of the Trinity.

There were and continue to be composers and compositions before and after the Trinity. But for our present purpose, the Trinity’s compositions suffice because not only are they most popular and form the gold standard of CM compositions, but the idea that anybody owns them is repulsive to the CM aesthete.

That brings us to the subject of ownership and authorship in CM. In what is largely an oral tradition, it is next to impossible to ascertain whether the Trinity had any notions of ‘ownership’ over their compositions. It is however clear from their use of a mudra or ‘signature word’, that they intended to let it be known that the composition was authored by them. Tyagaraja used the mudra “tyagaraja”, Syama Sastri “syama-krishna” and Dikshitar ‘guruguha’ in their respective compositions. In any case, their works are in the public domain and but for the problem presented below, discussion on their notions of ownership ought to be by-and-large of academic interest.

For our purpose, it is important to appreciate that even leaving the Trinity aside, a core aspect of the art-form may preclude a legalistic assertion of copyright ownership over the compositions. Within the framework of certain basic rules, every composition can be adapted to nuanced melodic variations (each variation, a sangati). When a CM student learns a composition from her teacher, usually the teacher passes on what he learnt from his guru with or without some adaptations of his own. This is a hallmark of what is largely an oral tradition of pedagogy and learning. Even today, when it is common to teach and learn from notations, no two versions of the same composition will be identical. Thus, to the trained ear, MS Subbulakshmi’s rendition of ‘Endaro Mahaanubhavulu’ differs markedly from KJ Yesudas’ version. Indeed, MS’ rendition of the same song in one concert may vary in sangatis from another. Note that in this example, the artiste is not changing the lyrics, or the raaga or taala to which they are set.

The other reason why legalistic ownership is not asserted could be that a composer wants her composition to be performed widely. Asserting any proprietary right would be counterproductive.

Thus, composers have so far been content with using the traditional method of attributing authorship to the composition, namely, the incorporation of a mudra into the lyrics. Together with the mudra, certain time-honoured principles, like not changing the lyrics, raaga or taala, appear to have served the art-form well. Therefore, while it is possible that a modern composer may concern herself with aspects of copyright law which the Trinity did not have the chance to encounter, it is more likely that in practice the author’s moral rights may be asserted more than her legal rights.

Until the advent of the internet, the conventional modes of listening to Carnatic music were attending live concerts, tuning into All India Radio or a few channels on TV, and listening from pre-recorded media (cassettes and CDs). The internet changed all that, with hitherto unimaginable amount of CM content finding its way online.

Enter ‘Parivadini’, a nascent venture that aims to improve access to CM worldwide by webcasting and archiving CM kutcheris on YouTube. Parivadini has its own YouTube channel. Though the streaming quality is patchy as of now, the biggest advantage to the listener is an archive of Carnatic music content that can be seen and heard on the Parivadini YouTube channel.

Parivadini says they always take the permission of the artistes and the organisers of the concert to webcast the event. So no trouble there.

Parivadini’s woes are coming from recording labels and the Indian Performing Arts Society. These (apparent) rights holders have lodged content infringement claims through YouTube’s ‘Content ID’ system.

The upshot of these claims is that they claim ownership over the song itself, thereby causing much uproar and outrage in the Carnatic music fraternity. Things become especially touchy if copyright is claimed over the songs of the Trinity. For example, if Parivadini were to webcast this author’s concert in which he sang, ‘Vaataapi Ganapatim’, it is most likely that YouTube will present a content claim by a recording label claiming ownership over the composition.

The recording labels and IPRS do not appear to distinguish the holding of rights in a sound / video recording of the composition (for example, owning rights to an audio recording of KJ Yesudas singing ‘Vaataapi Ganapatim’) from owning the composition itself.

Parivadini says it promptly disputes each claim, clarifying that no audio recording owned by the claimant or any other label for that matter was put up; that it was a webcast of a live performance with the consent of the artistes and organisers.

This presents a problem for Parivadini on a few counts. In the medium term, there is the threat that the Parivadini YouTube channel may be taken down as a whole if Parivadini gets three ‘strikes’ from rights holders. On a day-to-day basis, it is not only the nuisance of having to deal with the claims every day but also of leaving a contested video in the cold for a month, which is how long the claimant gets to either reject Parivadini’s reply or release the claim. Parivadini says that a video commands maximum hits only for the first month following its upload, after which interest in it wanes. This means that during the period when it could be viewed most, a video of an artiste performing ‘Vaataapi Ganapatim’ is in suspension because a recording label claims the song as its own.

The travails of Parivadini could be similar to those of stakeholders in other genres of music. Clearly, while Content ID may have served YouTube and content creators reasonably well, there are problems that need discussion, dialogue and resolution – problems that are compounded by the apathy of institutional rights holders and the neutrality of YouTube’s system to different genres of music.

In this age of automated systems, the biggest hurdle towards an enlightened resolution of this problem is the apparent unavailability in these organisations of real people to speak to.


One comment.

  1. AvatarPrem Bhaskaran

    As the Indian Performance Rights Society is party to this copyright charade, they should be targeted for NOT protecting the traditional lyrics in the public domain and for granting and protecting record labels’ false claims for copyright of lyrics. I was hit with a copyright violation notice for Nirvana Shatakam by Adi Sankar .
    I contested and they rejected my stand. I stuck to my stand and re-contested their claim. They removed their piece from Youtube and let the contest period of 30 days expire, thereby avoiding a conflict in what was certainly a deceitful move. IPRS should certainly be taken to task!


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.