Ilaiyaraaja’s Copyright Battle: A Turning Point For The Music Industry



We’ve all heard about Taylor Swift’s fierce battle for the rights to her music, but did you know there’s a similar saga unfolding in our own backyard? Enter Ilaiyaraaja, the maestro of Tamil music and a recipient of the prestigious Padma Vibhushan. This legendary composer has been waging a relentless war to reclaim control over his musical creations, shaking up the Indian music industry in the process. Let’s dive into Ilaiyaraaja’s battle and explore how it’s poised to change the landscape of music rights in India forever.

The Recent Uproar

Ilaiyaraaja recently sent legal notices to the makers of the Tamil film “Coolie” and the Malayalam hit “Manjummel Boys”. The issue? Unauthorized use of his compositions. This isn’t the first time he’s taken such action. Back in 2017, he famously served legal notices to his close friend, the late singer SP Balasubrahmanyam, and singer Chitra, barring them from performing his songs in concerts. His stand has always been clear: use my music without permission, and you’ll hear from my lawyers.

Understanding Copyright & Royalty In Music

In India, when music is created for films, the master rights typically belong to the film producer. They can sell or license these rights to music labels, which then exploit the music on various platforms. Revenue from these uses is split between the master owners (producers or labels) and the artists, including composers, singers, and lyricists.

However, it wasn’t until the 2012 amendment to the Indian Copyright Act that composers and lyricists were entitled to their share of royalties. Before this, they received only a one-time payment, with no rights to future earnings from their work. This amendment acknowledged their moral rights, ensuring they couldn’t be waived, even if they had signed contracts stating otherwise.

Ilaiyaraaja vs. Music Labels: The Backstory

Ilaiyaraaja’s battle with music labels is long and storied. In 2007, his late wife Jeeva Raaja signed an agreement with AGI Music, a Malaysia-based label, allowing them to exploit his music and pay royalties. When she passed away in 2011, AGI continued using his music, despite the lack of a clear contract duration. Ilaiyaraaja challenged this in court, and in 2019, the court ruled that the agreement had expired in 2012.
In 2014, Ilaiyaraaja took on several music labels, including AGI Music and Echo Recording Company, to stop them from exploiting his compositions without permission. The court recognized his “special moral rights” to 4,500 of his songs, composed for 1,000 movies, allowing him to release them under his own label and preventing others from modifying his work without consent.

The Latest Legal Battles

In 2024, Ilaiyaraaja’s legal notice to the makers of Coolie and Manjummel Boys marked another significant chapter. The issue with “Coolie” was the remix of his song “Vaa Vaa Pakkam Vaa” without his permission. Ilaiyaraaja’s notice was served to the producers but specifically targeted director Lokesh Kanagaraj, who had previously violated copyright consent.

The situation with Manjummel Boys was slightly different since the usage since they did not mutilate or modify the tracks used moreover, the producers had acquired the rights to use Ilaiyaraaja’s song “Kanmani Anbodu Kaadhalan” from the film “Gunaa”. Although they had the necessary licenses from the master owners, Ilaiyaraaja’s issue was more about respect and acknowledgment, especially since the song played a crucial role in the film’s promotion.

Industry Reactions & Future Implications

Ilaiyaraaja’s fight has sparked mixed reactions. Many in the industry support his stand, recognizing the importance of protecting creators’ rights. Others, however, view his actions as overreaching, particularly when it comes to moral rights and the respect he demands.

This battle is more than a legal tussle; it’s a call for the industry to respect and fairly compensate artists. It challenges the norms of how music rights are managed and could lead to significant changes in how royalties are distributed and how artists’ rights are upheld.
Adding to this momentum, just last month, on May 17, 2024, the Calcutta High Court delivered a game-changing judgement that could bolster Ilaiyaraaja’s fight. The court reinforced that authors of music and literary works used in sound recordings are entitled to royalties for their commercial use. This landmark decision marks a significant step in recognizing and upholding the rights of authors, a long-overlooked aspect despite the 2012 amendment to the Copyright Act.

Ilaiyaraaja’s relentless pursuit is setting a precedent. Whether you agree with his methods or not, there’s no denying that his fight is shaking up the music industry, and the ripples will be felt for years to come. So, next time you groove to one of his timeless compositions, remember the fierce battle behind those melodies, and the maestro who fought for his rights.


Authors: Nitika Nagar & Parinika Krishnan



Interns and Paralegals.


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