Guest Post: IPRS, Indian Railways, & Rabindrasangeet (!)

Logo_for_The_Public_Domain_ReviewPrashant Reddy, our most prolific blogger till date, takes a step out of blogging retirement to bring us this timely guest post on a curious development at the Indian Railways. It appears that IPRS, the copyright collecting society (or perhaps more appropriately, “company”, as they’ve also claimed), is trying to collect hefty royalty amounts from Indian Railways for playing Tagore’s music and other classic Bollywood melodies – the problem being that much of this is already in the public domain! This isn’t the only issue that IPRS/PPL have been involved in over these last few months – for instance please check out this “Christmas greeting” [pdf] sent out by the Telangana Chamber of Events industry! However – more on that in a later post. For now, back to IPRS, Indian Railways and Rabindrasangeet!

IPRS – Indian Railways – Rabindrasangeet: The three most unlikely words to be said in a single sentence

By: Prashant Reddy

On December 14, 2014 the Kolkata edition of the Indian Express carried this interesting story on how IPRS demanded that the Indian Railways take a licence for playing Rabindrasangeet (Tagore’s songs) and classic Bollywood melodies in the evenings on the Rajdhani and Duronto trains. The reason for the Railways exploring the option of playing such music was because its passengers, mostly Bengali, had made the suggestion in feedback surveys.

According to the news report, IPRS demanded 25 paise per day per passenger for a license to play the music. The calculations left the Indian Railways dazed and they decided to limit the music to only two Rajdhanis and two Durontos out of Kolkata and even this amount was going to cost them Rs. 16,00,000 (16 lakhs). After negotiations, IPRS offered to bring this amount down to Rs. 10,00,000 (10 Lakhs) and apparently the Eastern Railways is going to take a call only after a decision by the Railways Ministry in New Delhi. In a statement to the Indian Express, the regional manager of the IPRS said “We have asked from railways what we demand from other organisations like Air India. They all pay us as the approved tariff. Even Commonwealth Games paid us a copyright amount.”

One of the many problems with this demand made by IPRS is the simple fact that the copyright in the music and lyrics of Rabindra Sangeet, written by Rabindranath Tagore expired in the year 2001. Tagore, who was the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in literature in 1913, died in the year 1941. The copyrights in all of his works would have expired in 1991 since the copyright term at the time was 50 years. However after lobbying by Viswa Bharti, which held the copyright to all of Tagore’s work, the Government of India promulgated an emergency Ordinance in 1991 to extend the term of copyright in all works to sixty years. This was followed by Parliament enacting the Copyright (Amendment) Act, 1992 to ratify the contents of the Ordinance. In 2001, as the copyright in Tagore’s works were going to expire again, there was lobbying for another round of extensions but the government declined to play ball. As a result all of Tagore’s works went into the public domain around 14 years ago.

In any recording of Rabindrasangeet, there exist three distinct works in which a copyright can exist: the music, the lyrics and the sound recording of the music and lyrics. The copyright in the music and lyrics has definitely expired in 2001, sixty years after Tagore’s death. Since IPRS usually administers the rights in only music and lyrics, there is no question of anybody paying IPRS any money for Tagore’s songs. Even pre-2001 IPRS could have collected royalties for the music and lyrics, only if Viswa Bharti had given it the rights to collect such royalties.

The question now remains of the copyright in the sound recording containing Tagore’s songs. The relevant year in this regard is the year 1954, as the copyright in all sound recordings made before this year would have expired in 2014. For sound recordings of Tagore’s music made after 1955, the copyright may still exist and the Indian Railways will still have to pay royalties to the producer of the sound recordings but only after it confirms for itself the link documents establishing ownership and authorship of the sound-recordings.

The second limb of these transactions are the classic Bollywood melodies. The copyright in most of this music is likely held by Saregama, the new name of HMV. Once again all of the pre-1954 music, and I believe there is a lot of good music from that era, can be played for free since the copyright has expired in all of that music. Of course digging out original sound recordings from that era is going to be difficult but I’m quite sure that All India Radio (AIR) will be able to provide the originals.

The larger tragic question is of the state of copyright law in this country. Time and again, we keep seeing instances where users end up paying for content that is in the public domain or content which is not owned by a copyright society. Collecting royalties for works not owned by a copyright society is a crime under the Indian Penal Code and making false statements to any authority or officer is a crime under Section 68 of the Copyright Act.

This latest episode once again highlights the importance of having well regulated copyright societies. In my last post, last year before stepping down from SpicyIP, I had lamented on the lack of progress in operationalizing the Copyright (Amendment) Act, 2012. A year later we are at exactly the same position. In a few months, it would have been three years since the enactment of the amendments. The buck I believe stops with the Registrar of Copyright, both past and present. It’s time to end the policy paralysis in the Copyright Office.

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