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Bollywood sings the royalty blues

Hindi film composers, singers and lyricists have long agitated for royalties on their music. Though there are still plenty of hurdles, a recent judgement may have them singing a happier tune

Royalties have been a long-standing demand of Hindi film composers, lyricists and singers. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian
Royalties have been a long-standing demand of Hindi film composers, lyricists and singers. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian

On a balmy Sunday evening in late April, some of India’s most beloved playback singers—including Pankaj Udhas, Udit Narayan, Kumar Sanu and Alka Yagnik—got together in Mumbai to celebrate a landmark victory in a decades-long fight for royalties and copyright protection. The Indian Singers’ Rights Association (Isra) had put together the event to announce a historic new deal with the music-label body Indian Music Industry (IMI) that would finally see playback singers and musicians get performance royalties for the music they helped create.

“Ever since I started singing (in 1980), I have been hearing that singers deserve to get royalties,” Udhas told reporters. “But for so long, that remained just talk. Even now, I cannot believe that the dream we saw so many years ago has now become a reality.”

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Just a few days later, in a dusty little courtroom at the Bombay high court, India’s music creators would score another key victory. After over a decade of legal wrangling, the court finally ordered two FM radio stations, Radio Tadka and Radio City, to pay royalties to the “authors”—the lyricists and composers—for the copyrighted music they broadcast, setting a legal precedent for all stations. Coming within a week of each other, these two landmark wins represent a turning point in a fight that has earned support from a long list of music luminaries, including singers Arijit Singh, Sunidhi Chauhan and Shreya Ghoshal, composers A.R. Rahman, Pritam and Vishal-Shekhar, and lyricists Javed Akhtar, Varun Grover and Shailendra Singh.

The first shot of this campaign was fired by the late Lata Mangeshkar, back in the early 1960s. A self-confident young woman, she was no stranger to conflict. In the 1940s, she successfully fought with film producers and composers to ensure that playback singers were credited on screen and on disc. A few years later, she refused to perform at the newly launched Filmfare Awards to protest the absence of an award for playback singing (she won when the category was introduced in 1959). And now, she was demanding her dues, in the form of fair royalties for playback singers.

By then, the “Queen of Melody” was the closest thing Bollywood had to a guaranteed hit-maker. She reportedly charged 5,000 for a song, an industry record at the time. But Mangeshkar—familiar with the rigorous intellectual property rights (IPR) and royalties musicians in the West enjoyed, and perhaps already intuiting the enduring legacy of many of her songs—believed singers should also get royalties, specifically a half-share of the royalties producers then paid to select composers. She urged the ineffectual singers’ association to take a stand as she took on a handful of powerful men who controlled the lives and livelihoods of the film industry.

That first skirmish did not go her way. Though she got the support of some fellow singers, Mohammed Rafi—then the industry’s dominant male playback singer—demurred, leading to a years-long spat. There was also a falling out with Raj Kapoor, a powerful professional ally. Isolated, with many powerful voices arrayed against her, Mangeshkar dropped her campaign and made up with Rafi and Kapoor (though later interviews indicate she did manage to get a cut of the royalties for herself at least).

But the battle she initiated—with singers, composers and lyricists on one side and film producers and music companies, on the other—has continued for over half a century, playing out in boardrooms and courthouses, even Parliament. It has involved public spats among some of the leading lights of Indian film music, hostile takeovers of copyright societies, allegations of corporate-backed smear campaigns and even legislative skullduggery. Though the money-men had the upper hand for the most part, the tide is finally turning, in part thanks to a 2012 amendment to the copyright law that enshrined inalienable rights of authorship and royalties to music creators. And the key wins this April.

The battle for royalties—with singers, composers and lyricists on one side and film producers and music companies on the other—has continued for over half a century. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian
The battle for royalties—with singers, composers and lyricists on one side and film producers and music companies on the other—has continued for over half a century. Illustration by Nithya Subramanian

“I am delighted that the honourable Bombay High Court has seen fit to uphold and protect the rights of authors and composers whose creations have enthralled and inspired Indians and the world for decades,” said Javed Akhtar, chairman of the Indian Performing Right Society (IPRS) and a key player in the story, in a statement following the verdict. “This forward-looking and exemplary judgement places the creator back at the heart of copyright creation, which will serve as a great incentive for artistes, the music industry and for the creation of copyright in India”.

“This will benefit composers from the past who are currently struggling financially and will also incentivise currently active as well as prospective composers to do better,” adds Vishal Dadlani, singer and one half of the popular film composing duo Vishal-Shekhar, calling the Bombay high court order a “pro-music” judgement. “People who get paid rightfully for their work become empowered and work with pride and joy. Their work becomes their legacy. It’s a win-win!”

Setting The Stage

Before we dive into the unique, byzantine history of this battle for royalties, let’s understand the basics of music copyright in India as it relates to film music. The Indian Copyright Act of 1957 specified that copyright subsisted in “(a) original literary, dramatic, musical and artworks; (b) cinematograph films; and (c) sound recordings”. In the case of music, a song is divided into three different “works”, each with its own separate protection. The first two are the “musical work” (i.e. the musical melody or tune) and the “literary work” (i.e. the lyrics), the copyright to which accrued to composers and lyricists, respectively (collectively referred to as “authors” in the Act). The third is the “sound recording”, which is created when the abstract “musical” and “literary” works are recorded on to a fixed medium, and where the producer of the recording gets the copyright.

“Musical work” and “literary work” here refer to the abstract original creation, while “sound recording” refers to a specific expression of those creations. Each “author” is entitled to different royalties depending on their specific copyright, from performance royalties (paid when a piece of music is performed in public) and mechanical royalties (paid when a recording is reproduced for sale) to synchronisation royalties (when a song is played as part of a film, ad or in other video form), etc. So far so good.

But things get complicated when it comes to film music—which in India meant the vast majority of all commercially viable popular music for most of the last century—thanks to section 17 (c) of the Act, which specified that “where the author is employed under contract or apprenticeship, the employer shall be the first owner of the copyright”. The composers and lyricists who produced the songs India cherished were invariably employed under contracts that paid them a lump sum in exchange for them assigning all rights to the film producer (who would then pass them on to music companies in exchange for a guarantee of royalty payments).

This meant that in practice, the film producer became the first owner of copyrights for film songs, including the copyrights for “musical” and “literary” works, and was thus entitled to those royalties as well. The composers and lyricists were flat out of luck. Meanwhile, the singers and musicians who performed on a specific sound recording didn’t even get a look in, not even the fig leaf of authorship that was afforded to the composers and lyricists.

Dev Anand and (right) Javed Akhtar in conversation
Dev Anand and (right) Javed Akhtar in conversation

Some artists were understandably unhappy with this status quo, and, in 1969, a few years after Mangeshkar’s abortive rebellion, they saw a chance to challenge it. The newly formed IPRS—set up by the government as part of the process of joining the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) and charged with collecting and distributing royalties to its members—published a tariff scheme laying down certain licence fees for the public performance of works and lyrics that were a part of the organisation’s repertoire (which consisted almost exclusively of film songs).

This prompted a flurry of legal complaints from film producers, who argued that they had exclusive ownership of the copyright of all songs released as part of a film soundtrack. These disputes played out in front of the Union government’s Copyright Board before making their way to the Supreme Court. In a landmark ruling in 1977, the Supreme Court found in favour of the film producers (though Justice Krishna Iyer did note “infirmities” in the law when it came to the lack of copyright protection and royalties for singers).

“The 1977 judgement essentially upheld the decision of the lower court that authors are not the first owners of copyright,” explains Rakesh Nigam, the current CEO of the IPRS. “You are a journalist and every article you write is owned by your newspaper. It became the same for composers and lyricists, it was treated as a contract of service. Unless the author-composer had a contract to the contrary which said that they withheld the copyright, the film producer is treated by default as the first owner. Even in cases where there was no contract.”

For the next few decades, that was that. Work-for-hire contracts became the norm, not just for film songs but also for the newly emerging independent and non-film artists. Royalties, when they were paid out, largely remained in the pockets of film producers and music companies. For most Indian artists, they were little more than a flight of fancy.

“When I joined the IPRS in the 1990s, the organisation’s total income was 18 lakh and the expense was 15 lakh,” remembers Sanjay Tandon, a co-founder and CEO of Isra who also headed the IPRS from 1993-2004. “So nobody was bothered about royalties. Nobody even knew the ‘c’ of copyright, especially not the creators themselves.”

The Authors Strike Back

The 1990s brought liberalisation and emerging technologies—particularly the internet—that would create massive disruption in the music industry. Piracy decimated record sales at the same time as private FM radio, mobile downloads, caller ring-back tones and eventually digital downloads and streaming opened up new avenues for exploiting existing music catalogues. Royalty income for music companies—a marginal source of revenue at best during the 1970s-80s—was growing exponentially, while sales revenue was in freefall. The old debates about copyright and the artist’s right to royalty were back in the spotlight. And this time, artists were determined to get a share of the pie.

“When the digital era arrived in the early 2000s, authors and composers were more aware of their rights,” says Nigam. “They realised that the whole landscape is changing, so why should this old model continue into the digital medium?”

At the IPRS, Tandon and chairman Naushad Ali led the charge, trying to transform a toothless group of composers and lyricists into a professional copyright society. A 1993 memorandum of understanding with IMI (which represents all major music labels) finally allowed the organisation to issue licences and collect royalties for its author members. Progress was slow but steady. By 2000, the IPRS was pulling in eight figures in royalties revenue, with the figure poised to expand dramatically with the introduction of private FM radio.

But the music companies and film producers—already seeing their income squeezed by piracy and global competition—weren’t going to give in without a fight. Tensions within the IPRS, in part because of the increasing control the labels tried to exert, broke out into open conflict in 2004. An election for the IPRS governing council—in which Javed Akhtar won a seat on the council—sparked off years of legal disputes and what many lyricist and composer members saw as a hostile takeover of the organisation by the music labels. In 2008, the IPRS even cut off royalty payments for Akhtar and other members who refused to sign a letter that basically acknowledged the labels as owners of all copyright for music in the IPRS repertoire.

Lata Mangeshkar attends the launch of the 'Humsafar' 2013 calendar in Mumbai. Photo by AFP
Lata Mangeshkar attends the launch of the 'Humsafar' 2013 calendar in Mumbai. Photo by AFP

The courts—slow and restricted to interpreting the law as it stood—once again offered little succour to music creators. This time, though, they were better prepared and better led, with many industry stalwarts putting up a united front. If the law was the problem, then they would change the law. Their timing was perfect. The government was working on amendments to bring India in line with global copyright regulations and Akhtar had just been nominated to the Rajya Sabha, which meant that the artists had a popular parliamentarian fighting in their corner. The veteran lyricist led intense lobbying of MPs by artists and their allies to ensure stronger protections for creators in the new law (Mangeshkar, always a fighter for artist rights, extended her support to Akhtar during this campaign).

“We had to go to every parliamentarian and make them understand how artists are being harmed and how Indian artists are not getting their rightful royalties in comparison to their colleagues in other parts of the world,” says Tandon, who also deposed in front of the parliamentary committee reviewing the proposed amendments. “We were fortunate as a community to have a person like Javed Akhtar fighting in our corner, he took it up as a very serious and personal issue.”

The Bill passed into law on 22 May 2012. It overruled the contentious 1977 apex court judgement and strengthened protections for authors, including a bar on contracting away rights on future technologies, and stricter regulation of copyright collection societies. Last but not least, it also granted economic rights and royalties to “performers”—i.e. the singers and musicians who had been left out in the cold till then.

“The great thing about the 2012 amendment is that it made the right to royalty an inalienable right for an author,” says lyricist, screenwriter, actor and film-maker Mayur Puri, who is now also a director at the IPRS. “So if you have written something, then your right to be considered its author and your right to collect royalties is inalienable. Nobody can take that right away from you, even if you have signed a contract that says otherwise.”

“India is the only country in the world which has the equal share (50%) enshrined in law,” adds Nigam, terming the amendment one of the most progressive pieces of IPR legislation. “Not just for performing royalties. There are multiple different types of royalties: performing, mechanical, sync, adaptation, translation, everything. For all of these things, you now have an equal share of royalty.”

Finding a new balance

After the legislative victory came the long slog to turn legal rights into practical reality. Akhtar, Nigam and other allies led a reform of the IPRS to bring it back under the control of author-members and in line with the new regulation. Tandon formed Isra in 2013 along with Mangeshkar, Alka Yagnik and Sonu Nigam, and began work to finally get singers and performers their due. In 2018, Isra paid out its first royalties to singers, the small but symbolic amount of 51 lakh.

Both organisations are also caught up in a complex web of legal disputes as certain music companies, radio stations and digital service providers try to push back against the 2012 amendments.

“It has been a rough ride because all the major players who use a singer or musician’s work—radio stations, streaming platforms, YouTube, restaurants, shops, department stores—they all ganged up and said that they are not going to pay any royalties for singers,” says Tandon.

“Big corporations will spend crores of rupees in hiring lawyers and doing senseless litigation in order to avoid having to pay artists,” adds Puri. “They got together and they ran a smear campaign against the 2012 copyright amendment. For so many years, these companies have been exploiting artists and they want to continue doing that without accepting that the law has changed.”

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At present, only two of over 350 stations are paying royalties to the IPRS. The 28 April Bombay high court judgement, then, sets an important legal precedent. But the IPRS expects disputes to persist for some time. “The fight is not yet over as the radio-owned media houses are immensely powerful and can go to the Supreme Court but this is a landmark judgement by the honourable high court of Mumbai,” says the composer Pritam.

Despite these problems, both organisations can claim some big wins. Apart from a small but growing body of courtroom victories, they are finally able to pay their members at least some of the money they are owed. The IPRS has gone from bringing in 45 crore as royalties in 2017-18 to 576 crore in 2022-23, all of which—apart from a small cut to pay for the organisation’s activities—gets paid out to over 10,000 members from across India’s many film industries as well as non-film music scenes. “In the same five years, we have distributed over 900 crore of royalties, of which probably 550-600 crore have gone to authors and composers,” says Nigam.

Vishal Dadlani
Vishal Dadlani

Isra, meanwhile, will be getting 50 crore annually as royalties from IMI as part of its new deal, a figure that will eventually reach 60 crore, or 25% of what the PPL—the agency which collects mechanical royalties on behalf of music labels—brings in. Tandon expects that figure to grow massively but points out that just the acknowledgement that performers are entitled to royalties is a big early win.

“Working in music is not simple,” says playback singer Meghna Mishra. “It takes a lot of time to create one project, or one track. And there are many tracks or creations that get cancelled midway, because of the producer or because we don’t think it’s up to the mark. So to have this royalty income coming in from the work we have already done that people are listening to, that helps a lot.”

Many industry insiders argue that stronger IPR for artists has benefits beyond the immediate pay-out. At the most basic level, it incentivises work that goes beyond the current on-hype trend in favour of lasting cultural impact. It also enables artists to monetise and benefit from their body of work rather than just their latest commission, which is especially helpful for smaller and independent musicians who don’t usually sell their songs for tens of lakhs but have built up loyal audiences.

“I know that if I write a song that will be popular for a long time, it will benefit me too,” says lyricist, poet and writer Hussain Haidry. “So it incentivises me to try to write songs that are timeless. It will definitely help the musical ecosystem grow better.”

Stronger IPR and protections for artists also strengthen their bargaining power at a time when control of what, how and when music is consumed is increasingly in the hands of digital platforms and streaming companies rather than music labels. The norms and rules of this digital economy are still being written and everyone has a stake in ensuring that old, inequitable hierarchies are not reproduced and reinforced in this emerging reality. Get it wrong and you may end up sacrificing creative innovation at the altar of profits for data-driven tech companies.

“People need to understand that it’s not a privy purse that artists are getting,” says Puri. “The right to royalty emerges from the same principles as the right to property, which is fundamental to capitalism and democracy.” Puri envisions a future where IPRS membership grows tenfold in the next decade as its ranks swell with a new generation of digital music creators empowered by stronger copyright protections. But he—and pretty much everyone else I spoke to—acknowledges the hurdles. While IPRS and Isra have signed deals with every major music label and most major digital and streaming platforms, smaller players are still trying to avoid paying their dues. In 2022, approximately 82% of IPRS collections came from digital platforms, with many homegrown OTT platforms, major broadcasters and radio stations—not to mention clubs, venues, event organisers—still refusing to pay for the music they use.

“In India, the legal system takes so long that people are not afraid of violating the law,” says Nigam. “Indian courts are also very reluctant to grant any damages or penalties, so at best you will receive the same royalty or less than what you had claimed. And it has taken you 10 years. Then what’s the incentive for the user to pay royalties? He can just pay you from the interest he has accumulated on that money.”

Another problem is the lack of a transparent, regulated system for tracking and sharing data—from the number of streams a song gets to the complex formulae for calculating payouts—which puts rights holders at a disadvantage. “Music companies are no longer in control of the music, they just license the music,” says Nigam. “That data is actually in the hands of the user—YouTube, Wynk, JioSaavn, Apple. And they are the ones who need to collate that data transparently and give it out to a third party. But that’s not happening on the user end at all. So we need some sort of mechanism or regulatory body that can collate that information and circulate it to all.”

Some issues also arise from ambiguities and lacunae in the wording of the 2012 amendment, especially when it comes to the economic rights of performers and the lack of punitive damages for companies that continue to provide illegal, royalty-denying contracts to gullible or unaware creators and performers. Take, for example, Ilaiyaraaja’s long-running battle to assert his copyright on music he created in the 1980s, despite the new amendment. Or Bhuban Badyakar—the West Bengal peanut seller behind the viral hit Kacha Badam—who claims to have been cheated out of his copyright and royalties for the track by a malicious local label.

“The quantum of royalties payable to the authors needs a revisit as the law does not provide clear guidance on how the share of royalties is to be computed, which has resulted in a skewed position when it comes to industry standard,” says media and entertainment law attorney Pooja Lal. “There’s (also) a long way to go to ensure practical implementation of performers’ rights.”

The biggest challenge, though, remains one the industry has been grappling with for decades. Indian consumers—and the platforms that serve them—just do not like to pay for music. Only a tiny minority using online streaming services pay and revenue from physical and digital sales has been on a downward march since the 1990s.

“If an artist knows where his next meal is coming from, he’s free to focus on the act of creation,” says Puri. “And that benefits not just the arts but all of society. If you look at the greatest periods of world history, they are all known for the art created during that period. Art is a mark of how good life was at that time. But today there is no king to give patronage, so for the artist to have financial security and create great art, he needs royalties. That’s why I say that if we pay fair and transparent royalties to artists, toh Ram Rajya ho jayega.”

Bhanuj Kappal is a Mumbai-based writer.

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