The remixed version of the popular Sambalpuri song Rangabati which was aired on an episode of the MTV Coke Studio, whilst having become a massive hit on Youtube, has stirred up quite a controversy. The song infuses the original Rangabati with English-Tamil rap and the Orissa state anthem, Bande Utkal Janani. The original song’s lyricist Mitrabhanu Gauntia and music director Prabhudutta Pradhan – the disputed copyright holders of the song – have slapped Hindustan Coca-cola Beverage Private Limited, Hindustan Coca Cola Holdings Private Limited, Viacom 18 Media Private Limited, singers Sona Mohapatra, Rituraj Mohanty and composer Ram Sampath with a legal notice alleging copyright infringement. The two have demanded compensation worth rupees one crore, with the legal notice stating that failure to pay the same before July 18 would result in legal action.
Through this post, I shall attempt to examine whether the Gauntia and Pradhan as the alleged copyright holders of the song have any claim as to moral rights over the song, and the position concerning remix versions of songs under the prevailing copyright law.
Pradhan and Gauntia have essentially three bones to pick with the parties mentioned – of which the first two appear quite understandably legitimate to me.
The very first, of course, is that no license or authorization of any kind was sought from Pradhan or Gauntia for the song’s remix version. On one hand, Pradhan insists that since he himself recorded the song in 1977 at Kolkata’s Hindustan Record Company, the copyright of the song rests with him and prior permission should have been sought from him before creating the remix. However, if Mahapatra’s public domain claim is true, then that would very well invalidate any copyright question that may be raised – Pradhan, Mahapatra and anybody else would have an equal right to re-arrange the song and create a new version without acquiring a license for it. Question for Pradhan here : if the song is, as he claims to it to be, a private work, and a not a folk song, why would the Sambalpuri people have reason to be offended? Classic Hindi songs (take Amitabh Bachchan’s Rang Barse, for instance) have been picked up and remixed over and over again, with the new versions being welcomed with open arms – then shouldn’t there be a reason why the remix of a classic Sambalpuri song has allegedly invited this seemingly unwarranted public outrage, if at all? Wouldn’t their apparent displeasure then point to the glaring possibility that the song might in fact an age-old folk song passed down through the generations?
The two were further antagonised by the branding of the song as the remix of an Odia number, despite the fact that the song was originally written and released as a Sambalpuri number. They claim that since a movement to push the government to recognize the Sambalpuri-Kosali language under Schedule 8 of the Constitution has been underway for the longest time, the song’s projection as an Odia number has hurt the sentiments of not only the makers of the song, but also the people of Odisha (Sambalpuri is spoken in Western Odisha).
The third factor that Gauntia and Pradhan took issue with was the apparent incorrect usage and mispronunciation of words in the Coke Studio remixed version – with the use of the word ‘Ranga’ instead of ‘Rangabati’ by Mahapatra on a few occasions having seemingly annoyed them the most. In Sambalpuri, ‘Ranga’ refers to the third gender, while ‘Rangabati’, meaning beautiful, is the name of a girl. This, Pradhan claimed, amounted to an insult to his culture and sentiments.
‘Ranga’, and the Author’s Moral Right to Integrity
Leaving aside for the moment, the question of ownership and infringement, it’s worth looking into the question of the author’s moral rights to integrity, since Pradhan has focused some of his claims on being ‘insulted’.
While Mannu Bhandhari v Kala Vikas Pictures was the very first case that recognized the moral rights of an author, it was in Amar Nath Sehgal v. Union of India where the Court effectively recognized, interpreted and upheld an author’s moral rights under the Copyright Act, 1957. The Court recognized an author’s moral rights to be the soul of his works – essentially granting the author the right to preserve, protect and nurture his creations irrespective of the assignment of such copyright, whether wholly or partially.
Section 57 of the Copyright Act deals with an Author’s special rights, whereby, independent of the author’s copyright and even after the whole or partial assignment of such copyright, under sub-section (1)(b), an author shall have the right “to restrain or claim damages in respect of any distortion, mutilation, modification or other act in relation to the said work if such distortion, mutilation, modification or other act would be prejudicial to his honour or reputation”.
Although it is true that I know not one word of Odia, I can say with some certainty that Pradhan and Gauntia’s accusations on this ground appear to be rather misplaced. The heinous error that Mahapatra is alleged to have made follows in this fashion – in keeping with the pace of the song, she sings, “O Ranga, O Ranga, O Ranga, Ranga, Rangabati, Rangabati”. There is absolutely no suggestion that the word has been used with the intention to place specific emphasis on the Ranga word – and even if one were to presume that it were so, how would using the word ‘ranga’ (‘third gender’) instead of ‘rangabati’ completely deform and twist the original song so as to show disrespect towards their culture, as Pradhan has claimed!? Keeping in mind that the Supreme Court recently formally recognized the third gender, and asked the Center (amongst other things) to work towards erasing social stigma against the third gender, it seems likely that a court would throw out any claims that a reference to the third gender is tantamount to an insult. And most importantly, presuming that Pradhan is indeed the author of the original work, does the word’s use amount to mutilation of the song so as to actually have the effect of injuring his honour?
I think not. Only so far as ‘moral rights’ are concerned, to claim that Ranga’s use would amount to a violation would be a bit of a stretch.
The Remix Culture : Controversy’s Child?
MTV Coke Studio’s Rangabati is essentially a remix or ‘version recording’. The Delhi HC in the famous Gramophone Company of India Limited vs. Super Cassettes Industries Limited (1998) recognized a version recording as “a sound recording made of an already published song by using another voice or voices and with different musicians and arrangers. Version recording is thus neither copying nor reproduction of the original recording”.
Section 31C of the Copyright (Amendment) Act, 2012, while specifically catering to cover versions of songs, does not contain a similar provision targeting remix versions of songs.
The provisions appear to disallow the creation of cover recordings without prior consent, with 31-C(3) stating that “The person making such sound recordings shall not make any alteration in the literary or musical work which has not been made previously by or with the consent of the owner of rights, or which is not technically necessary for the purpose of making the sound recordings” – the very essence of a remix version is to modify and re-create the musical arrangement in the original song. Therefore, for all practical purposes, if you’re making a remix without the copyright-holder’s authorization, eventually and in all probability you’re going to have to either enter into a settlement or battle it out in court, because the ambiguity under the current copyright laws most definitely guarantees ample conflict so far as this subject is concerned.
If the matter goes to Court, one might perhaps expect some clarity concerning the position of remix versions under the Copyright (Amendment) Act, 2012.
Meanwhile, this article on the Odisha Sun Times aptly puts it all together, questioning the legitimacy of making copyright claims against MTV Coke Studio’s remix version of the song. It quite aptly states that those who refer to the version as an insult, are essentially failing to recognize the incredible exposure that the Coke Studio platform had given to the regional Sambalpuri music by allowing it to disseminate beyond the narrow confines of Orissa’s borders. Remixing classic songs has been known to be a rather effective way of reaching out to the young and the restless of the country, and perhaps instead of viewing it as an offence to culture and tradition, it should be recognized as an indispensable way to keep the music alive and well.
The Rangabati fiasco aside, in the light of the dime a dozen remixes being created from old classic numbers, a ‘version recording’ demands to be recognized as an exclusive genre in itself, (and not merely an extension of a cover recording), and must be expressly included within the ambit of the law if the umpteen question marks surrounding the legitimacy of its very existence are to be put to rest, once and for all.
My thanks to Swaraj for his inputs on this post.