Ustad Faiyaz Wasifuddin Dagar vs. AR Rahman: Analysis Of Issues Involved In The Copyright Case

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In a recent legal battle that has taken the Indian music industry by storm, veteran Indian classical singer Ustad Faiyaz Wasifuddin Dagar has filed a copyright infringement suit in the Delhi High Court against renowned music composer AR Rahman and the producers of the Tamil film ‘Ponniyan Selvan 2’ and the music label Tips Industries.

The lawsuit, which alleges that the song ‘Veera Raja Veera’ from the movie infringes upon Dagar’s composition, ‘Shiva Stuti’ was filed by Dagar in an attempt to seek assistance from the court to restraint Rahman and the film’s producers from using the allegedly copied composition in their song, claiming that it is an original work of Dagar’s father and uncle dating back to the 1970s. This legal battle has raised questions about the boundaries of copyright in the world of music, especially within the realm of classical compositions and adaptations and the aim of this article is to shed some light on the same in an attempt to answer these questions.

 

Case Background & Allegations Involved

In the present case the plaintiff, Ustad Faiyaz Wasifuddin Dagar, who upon the release of the song Veera Raja Veera claimed to have noticed the unmistakably similar composition of the song to Shiva Stuti, was seen alleging that the song ‘Veera Raja Veera’ from the Tamil film ‘Ponniyan Selvan 2’ is based on his father and uncle’s composition, the “Shiva Stuti” which was composed in the 1970’s and rights in which were inherited by him subsequently.

The plaintiff further asserted that the ‘Shiva Stuti’ which was in itself renowned, had been performed at international concerts, including a notable performance at the Royal Tropical Institute in Amsterdam in 1978 in addition to having been a recorded composition performed by the Dagar brother and forming a part of an existing album titled ‘Shiva Mahadeva’ which was produced by PAN Records.

On the other hand, the legal representatives of the defendants i.e the producer’s of the Ponniyan Selvan 2 have been continuously denying any infringement, by arguing, that the plaintiff’s copyright infringement claim was misconceived, as the song was a traditional one and could therefore not attract any infringement claims.

From the above we understand that the main issues of the case involved are:

1. Whether Shiva Stuti can be recognised as a traditional song and to that extent if copyright can be claimed in it;
2. In the event copyright subsists in the musical composition of ‘Shiva Stuti’, whether the same has been infringed.

Legal Proceedings

The matter was heard by Justice Prathiba M Singh, before whom the plaintiff produced a chart comparing the musical notations of both compositions. The main argument put forth by the plaintiff’s legal team, was that while the lyrics of the two compositions differed, the taal (rhythm) and beat of the song were nearly identical.

Meanwhile the lawyers representing the producer’s of Ponniyan Selvan 2 argued that there was no copyright in ‘Shiva Stuti’ as it is a traditional song and cannot be ‘owned’ by anyone.
On hearing the arguments, Justice Prathibha, directed the other defendant in the case and the music composer of the film, AR Rahman to produce the raw recording of the song ‘ Veera Raja Veera’ and provide a reply to the notation chart presented by plaintiff. The court also listed the case for further hearing in November and instructed the defendants to file their replies by then.

The Court’s Perspective

While Justice Prathiba M Singh refrained from making any observations on the dispute’s merits at the present stage, she did observe that there was a visible similarity between the two compositions. On carefully examining the definition of “musical work” under the Copyright Act, 1957, she noted that copyright infringement in musical works could occur even if the words, lyrics, and actions were different; suggesting that the court was leaning towards the observation that similarities in the composition itself may be sufficient to constitute infringement. However, given that the matter is still pending, the court’s perspective on whether ‘Shiva Stuti’ would constitute a traditional song and if an infringement of the Plaintiff’s composition has actually occurred, remains to be seen.

Analysis

As a unique work of art, original to the mind of the author, composer or producer (as the case may be), music, songs and lyrics have been accorded protection under the copyright law, worldwide to ensure that these works are not infringed by third parties, and the rights of such authors, composers or producers are not negatively impacted or jeopardized. The Indian Copyright Act, 1957, which recognizes that copyright subsists in Sound Recordings, Musical Works and Literary Works also offers protection to such Works during the term of the copyright in the Works. However, in recent years, questions on the kind of Works can seek this protection have come to the forefront and in the present case as well, the defendant’s argument on the ‘Shiv Stuti’ not being copyrightable due to its existence as a ‘traditional song’ bring to light a complex and nuanced issue within the realm of music with regard to copyrightability of certain kinds of music.

While the case is currently under the jurisdiction of the Delhi High Court and awaits further hearings, it has already sparked a debate regarding the boundaries of copyright, especially in the context of classical compositions and adaptations. The decision in the case especially with regard to whether Shiv Stuti can be recognised as a ‘traditional song’ given that its composer and authors are identifiable, is expected to have far-reaching implications for the music industry and the way artistic creations are accorded protection in India.

It will be intriguing to see how the court’s final judgment balances the rights of the original composer, the adaptability of traditional compositions, and the boundaries of copyright law in music. Until then, the Indian music industry and legal experts continue to closely follow the developments in this high-profile legal battle.

 

Contributors: Madhu Gadodia (Deputy Managing Partner), Shaanal Shah (Principal Associate), Dayita Panicker (Associate)


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