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Delhi HC to set the right note on AR Rahman’s song

The Delhi High Court will soon rule on copyright protection for traditional music after the song, Veera Raja Veera, composed by music director A.R. Rahman for a Tamil movie, Ponniyin Selvan 2, was contested by Ustad Faiyaz Wasifuddin Dagar, a renowned classical singer.

Dagar alleged copyright infringement, asserting that Rahman and other producers of the film replicated the original composition, Shiva Stuti, from the 1970s, composed by his father and uncle.

Dagar contended that despite the different lyrics, the musical structure, rhythm (taal), and beat of the song closely resemble the original Shiva Stuti composition.The case is pending before the court.

Until 1992, copyright laws in India provided protection to original works until the author’s demise, plus 50 years, but subsequently, was extended to 60 years through an ordinance in Parliament, specifically to extend the time of reprint for Rabindranath Tagore’s work.

Music creators and legal experts differ in this case, as artists view traditional music as a universal wellspring of inspiration, while legal experts insist that the works should undergo standard legal tests to establish non-infringement. Music composers contend that both Shiva Stuti and Veera Raja Veera are grounded in the Adana Kandalum Ragam (Raag Adana), which is a part of Carnatic classical music. Ragams or Ragas are musical building blocks based on specific notes. Classical music songs are crafted by applying these ragas in various combinations.

“There is a certain amount of application that goes while presenting a song. In this case, unfortunately, the application of two geniuses—Rehman and Dagar Brothers—has almost been the same. You can never copyright a ragam, or even a chord. It is equivalent of copyrighting words or letters,” said music director Vishal Chandrashekar, who scores music for Tamil and Telugu movies.

According to court filings, Dagar came to know about the song in April, when Veera Raja Veera was released on social media and television. He subsequently raised his concerns about infringement with Madras Talkies and Tips Industries, the producers of the film. However, when the producers refuted his allegations, Dagar moved court.

“In this case, the plaintiff (Dagar) claimed that the disputed song Veera Raja Veera of the film PS-2, is similar to Shiva Stuti based on Raag Adana sung by his late father and uncle in the 1970s,” said Smriti Yadav, partner, Khaitan & Co. “The defendants (Rahman and others) have claimed the disputed song is based on folklore music, available in the public domain since many centuries. It remains to been seen how the court treats the contentions of the parties.”

Under copyright laws, there are standard tests to arrive at a conclusion on whether a work infringes the copyright of some other producer, including test of originality, said legal experts. “Copyright protection includes copyright on musical notes and compositions. Test for protection on musical notes or compositions is originality of a composition,” Swati Sharma, head, intellectual property practice at Cyril Amarchand Mangaldas, said. “Copyright in original composition is valid during the life of the author plus 60 years post her death. Therefore, the musical compositions of old masters such as Beethoven (1770–1827) or Mozart (1756- 1791) are now in public domain and often used commercially.”

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