After more than a decade long legal battle of popular Aditya Pandey matters, there seems to be no dawn on the murky disarray of rights of owners in sound recordings. The recent Delhi High Court Judgment delivered on 4th January 2021 has just jumbled up the copyrights more. Although the origin of the dispute dates back to 2006, the legal implications of the ruling in this dispute have drastic impact on the existing law.
Entertainment Network India Ltd (EN) radio channel was sued in 2006 for not continuing to take license from Indian Performers Rights Society Ltd (IPRS) on certain copyrighted works. EN claimed that IPRS representing the lyricists and composers of Musical works had no right to collect royalties and that it was duly paying the royalties to Phonographic Performers Limited (PPL) which represented owners of sound recordings. The suit was jointly dealt with another copyright infringement suit of 2009 failed against CRI Events Privates Ltd (CRI) by PPL for playing sound recordings in its event. In both these disputes IPRS has represented as a copyright society on behalf of composers and lyricists, while PPL copyright society represented owners of sound recordings.
The case dealt with which copyright society (IPRS or PPL) deserved the payment. This issue involves dealing on the intricate differences of musical work and sound recordings, and the rights of owners of underlying works in copyrights. The Delhi High Court has rightly acknowledged the difference between musical work and sound recordings in line with the Supreme Court. While musical work is primary in nature, sound recording is derivative in nature. Sound recording is the amalgamation of woks of lyricists and composers. The lyric writer and the composer are the authors of their work of lyrics and music tunes respectively. However, for creation of a song the lyric writer, composer, singer and several others usually are employed by a producer, who becomes the owner of such sound recording.
The existence of several people has been creating a lot of ambiguity on: Whether the primary work e.g.: lyrics had an independent existence from the sound recording; whether the lyricists or composers needed permission from the owner to communicate their works independently, who had the rights of licensing, assignment and right to royalties. Prior to the 2012 amendments to the Copyright act, the producer of the film or sound recording was the owner and had sole rights on the work. There was no independent existence of underlying works and no rights existed with the owners of underlying works. It was time and again stated by courts that the permission of lyricists and composers was not required for licensing the copyrighted work. After agitation from artists about the unfair revenue distribution of their intellect, the 2012 amendments provided them with rights on receiving royalty in the assignment of their underlying works.
Keeping aside the loopholes in the amendments, the law was certain that prior to 2012, that the rights of licensing existed with owners alone. The present judgment seems ambiguous exactly at this juncture. On one hand it has acknowledged the sole rights of owners wherein, the judge agreed that the owner has the power to license not just the sound recordings but also on parts of the sound recording being communicated to the public. On the other hand, the ruling for EN and CRI has not been on equal footing of this legal position.
IPRS was not allowed to collect royalties from EN for playing sound recordings as it just represented lyricists and composers. On the other hand, IPRS was unusually allowed to collect royalties from CRI because of the live performances in the events. The law prior to 2012 is clear, it didn’t matter whether sound recordings were being played or the live performance happened on the underlying components of the sound recordings, the sole right vested with the owner. There was no dual nature of rights because there was no separate copyright existing for lyricists or for composers as they were considered as a part of a sound recording. Therefore, by choosing to apply the law differently in the ruling is not just unjustified for CRI but also raises concern on the interpretation of legal position prior to 2012.
Another unfortunate obiter venture in this ruling is on the nature of 2012 amendments. The court opined that the 2012 amendments regarding the rights of underlying works and the rights of authors on assignment and licensing were merely clarificatory in nature. It means that the present ruling wouldn’t have differed even if the cause of action arose post the enforcement of 2012 amendments. So, the ruling implied that there were no rights for the authors of underlying works of sound recordings i.e., the lyricists, composers had no rights on sound recordings and their rights were restricted only if such underlying work was communicated independently.
The above obiter has a drastic effect on the rights of authors. It is also important to note that this judgment succeeds an IPAB ruling that fixed separate royalty rates to the owners (lyricists and composers) of underlying works in sound recordings. So, now the stand on rights of owners of underlying works is also blurred.
In conclusion, this recent judgment of Delhi High Court has disarrayed the rights in copyright law. Firstly, it has applied the legal position prior to 2012 erroneously. Secondly, there was unnecessary obiter that the 2012 amendments were merely clarificatory in nature, which is wrong as per Supreme court’s opinion and Parliament debates that reiterated an enhanced pedestal and recognized the rights of the owners of underlying works. Lastly, the ruling has led to an ambiguity on underlying works in sound recordings, which might take a long time before being addressed by overloaded Supreme Court.