Earlier in November, the Madras High Court heard a matter that revolved around the copyrightability of Sanskrit hymns. The complaint was filed by 90 year old T. Govindan Ayyangar of Srivilliputtur against 86 year old religious leader Ko.Ka.Su. Thiruvazhiyannan Swami of Srirangam. The complainant had penned the Sanskrit hymn titled ‘Sirupuliyur Sri Krupasamudra Swamy Subrapaatham’ for which he was paid Rs. 3500 by the accused. The hymn was then published in the form of a booklet and distributed to the attendees of a marriage function in 2010. The complainant claims copyright infringement, cheating under the IPC and other offences. The accused on the other hand, contends that he was publishing a commissioned work after paying due remuneration to the author.
The matter went before Justice Vaidyanathan of the Madras High Court. Justice Vaidyanathan expressed shock at the fact that publication of hymns written in praise of God and distributed in order to obtain divine blessings would result in filing of a complaint of cheating under the IPC. He stated that this matter would be best settled through mediation and conciliation, with the proceedings being conducted in camera. Considering the advanced age of both the complainant as well as the accused, the Court issued short notice to the complainant and adjourned the hearing.
In this context, it is interesting to discuss whether Sanskrit slokas and hymns are copyrightable and the application of the same in practice. This is not only limited to cases such as the instant case, where the author of the hymns is known but also where these hymns were passed down through an oral tradition. It is the author’s opinion that these hymns are copyrightable. The hymns appear in the nature of literary works whose protection is guaranteed under the Copyright Act. However, in practice their copyrightability is tricky to apply in cases where there is lack of clarity on who the copyright ought to be attributed to. In cases where slokas of such nature are withheld from the public, S. 31A, Copyright Act could possible be employed to argue for a compulsory license for the same. The application of S.31A to provide copyright protection for folklore can be found here. In any event, In such cases, like in the case of Carnatic Music, the answer is more likely to lean towards moral rights than legal rights. Interestingly, in 2007 the Indian Government had issued a communique stating that Sanskrit slokas ought to be patented. At that time SpicyIP had clarified stating that copyright and not patent is the appropriate protection for Slokas.
Thus, it is the author’s opinion that copyright protection is available for Sanskrit hymns, particularly in the instant case, where the author of the work is clearly known.