Cohen and Copyright: Lessons in Letting Go


(Image from here: Verse from Cohen’s “Anthem”)

“And like that..poof…he [it] was gone!”

These legendary lines describing the enigmatic Keyser Söze, (from a stunning suspense of a Hollywood thriller titled “The Usual Suspects”) could well have described Leonard Cohen’s tryst with copyright.

For, before he knew it, he’d signed a bunch of papers that effectively divested him of all rights in “Suzanne”, a song that went on to propel him to stardom. But did he weep? Did he cry? No, in much the same way as the eternal optimist in this fictional fable, he simply thanked the good lord that elephants didn’t fly!

Intrigued? Read on…. My tribute (in the Wire) to the legend called Leonard…musician, mystic, maverick and much more. Indeed, a life well lived….characterised by an abundance of creativity, compassion and conflict resolution…but most of all, of simply letting go!

Leonard Cohen: Of Love, Light and Copyright


“So Leonard Cohen has just passed – leaving behind one of the most soulful and melodious musical legacies. He was a poet, a musician, a singer, a mystic, a philosopher and a philanderer – all rolled into one. He had danced many of us to the end of love. And beyond!

Cohen’s’ tryst with copyright law was not an entirely happy one. Right at the start, all the rights were taken from him for the legendary number around one of the world’s most famous muses, Suzanne Verdal. Yes, she of the “tea and oranges” fame, who “takes you to the river” and shows you “heroes in the seaweed”.

But did he regret the loss of those rights? Not at all – rather he celebrated it as helping him retain the purity of the music and the moment.

Here is what he had to say (at 9.37 mins into the above video):

“I feel very good about this song. It’s a song that people loved. Fortunately, the rights were stolen from me…..I thought it was perfectly justified. It would be wrong for me to write this song and get rich from it too. I’m happy for that friend who put a piece of paper in front of me and said “Sign this”. I asked: “What is this”? He said: “Just a standard writers’ contract”. I signed it, and it was gone!”

What happened to Cohen takes us back to many of our Bollywood lyricists and music composers who suffered the same misfortune for years on end, till a one-man army, in the form of Javed Akhtar, decided to right the wrong through a crafty amendment in the Copyright Act. It now mandates that even if all rights were assigned, the artist can still stake a claim to a share in some of the royalties made by record houses.

Given his mystical moonlighting as a Buddhist monk, it’s not surprising that Cohen’s life also holds incredible lessons for compassion and forgiveness.

His statements in court after winning an embittered legal battle against his former music manager who had ripped him off a cool $5 million is a huge lesson in the power of compassion and forgiveness. He had said,

“It gives me no pleasure to see my onetime friend shackled to a chair in a court of law, her considerable gifts bent to the services of darkness, deceit, and revenge. It is my prayer that Ms [Kelley] Lynch will take refuge in the wisdom of her religion, that a spirit of understanding will convert her heart from hatred to remorse, from anger to kindness, from the deadly intoxication of revenge to the lowly practices of self-reform.”

If only all litigants embraced this ideal, we’d have a far more evolved dispute resolution ecosystem. Unfortunately, despite the court victory, Lynch never paid up. Cohen was forced to go back on the road to earn a living. And within a couple of years, he managed to make all his lost money back through live performances and the like. Better still, Cohen began thriving on these performances, as opposed to his yesteryears, where it took a bottle or two to survive the onslaught of stage fright.

It was a classic case, where adversity converted to advantage. Indeed, as he sang once: “there’s a blaze of light in every word”. Hallelujah to that!

RIP Leonard! You had a line for everyone. As for us argumentative Indians, divided up by deeply polar positions on almost every issue, I can’t think of anything more apt than your appeal (which served as a prelude to “If It Be Your Will”).

“I don’t know which side anybody is on any more. I don’t really care. There is a moment when we have to transcend the side we’re on and understand that we are creatures of a higher order.”

Unfortunately, far from transcending, many of us prefer the pull of polarity. But then again crooned Cohen, fault is but a fact of life, a redemption even. “There is a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.”

Let’s hope our distressing national debates see more light and less heat in the coming days.”

Shamnad Basheer

Prof. (Dr.) Shamnad Basheer founded SpicyIP in 2005. He's also the Founder of IDIA, a project to train underprivileged students for admissions to the leading law schools. He served for two years as an expert on the IP global advisory council (GAC) of the World Economic Forum (WEF). In 2015, he received the Infosys Prize in Humanities in 2015 for his work on legal education and on democratising the discourse around intellectual property law and policy. The jury was headed by Nobel laureate, Prof. Amartya Sen. Professional History: After graduating from the NLS, Bangalore Prof. Basheer joined Anand and Anand, one of India’s leading IP firms. He went on to head their telecommunication and technology practice and was rated by the IFLR as a leading technology lawyer. He left for the University of Oxford to pursue post-graduate studies, completing the BCL, MPhil and DPhil as a Wellcome Trust scholar. His first academic appointment was at the George Washington University Law School, where he served as the Frank H Marks Visiting Associate Professor of IP Law. He then relocated to India in 2008 to take up the MHRD Chaired Professorship in IP Law at WB NUJS, a leading Indian law school. Later, he was the Honorary Research Chair of IP Law at Nirma University and also a visiting professor of law at the National Law School (NLS), Bangalore. Prof. Basheer has published widely and his articles have won awards, including those instituted by ATRIP, the Stanford Technology Law Review and CREATe. He was consulted widely by the government, industry, international organisations and civil society on a variety of IP issues. He also served on several government committees.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.