Why Ilaiyaraaja Is A Misunderstood Activist

In this country’s harsh climate of polarisation, we criticise individual events rather than systemic issues. Why is a composer branded selfish for merely asserting his rights?
Why Ilaiyaraaja Is A Misunderstood Activist
Why Ilaiyaraaja Is A Misunderstood Activist

When I sat down to write this article on Ilaiyaraaja, I found that his legal team had sent a notice to the production house of Manjummel Boys for using the song ‘Kanmani Anbodu’ (from Gunaa) without his permission. As expected, a slew of social media posts arrived, branding him a selfish, greedy man trying to take away from a blockbuster film’s significance. 

A controversy of similar effect erupted when a legal notice was sent to the organisers of SP Balasubrahmanyam’s SPB 50 Concert in the US in 2016. In the recent past, Ilaiyaraaja has sent notices to Sun Pictures for the use of the ‘Va Va Pakkam Va’ song from Thanga Magan in the teaser of Rajinikanth and Lokesh Kanagaraj’s Coolie, without their permission. The same goes for director Shankar’s production house, for using his song ‘Ooru Vittu Ooru Vandhu’ from Karakattakaran (1989) in 2017 film Kappal. All these production houses claim that they received the rights from audio companies — in the case of Sun Pictures, from Sony Music (which licences songs from Echo Audio) and with respect to Shankar’s production house, Agi Music. 

Admirers and naysayers might have innumerable questions based on media speculations. Are these production companies wrong to use his music? What are these copyright issues? Doesn’t the movie’s producer own all the rights to a movie? Above all, why is Ilaiyaraaja greedy? Or is he?


The Raaja copyright issue: a backgrounder

In India, the majority of the music produced is part of movies. A producer commissions a film with various crafts, and over the years, the producer has exclusively sold music rights to a music label for a price. Music labels have perpetual rights to reproduce, redistribute, and licence musical recordings in any way. However, they have to pay a royalty to the composer. The Indian Performing Rights Society (IPRS), a non-profit organisation established in 1969, tracked the commercial music usage across India and distributed royalties to various members based on the contracts they had chalked out with audio labels. In 2018, Ilaiyaraaja left the IPRS because he felt he was being shortchanged with respect to the royalties compared to Bollywood composers. He also announced all his royalty money would go to the Cine Musicians Association of Tamil Nadu. 

When Ilaiyaraaja started his career in cinema, from 1978 to 1980, the producers sold the exclusive rights to a few companies. Of which the Indian Recording Company (INRECO) is a prominent one. They hold the audio rights to 30 Ilaiyaraaja movies, including classics like Priya (1978), Sigappu Rojakkal (1978), and Udhiripookal (1979). Initially, INRECO filed a case against Ilaiyaraaja, and a single judge gave an injunction against the composer to stop using the songs commercially. The High Court allowed a plea filed by Ilaiyaraaja in 2022, but I am unsure about the current status.

By 1982, Ilaiyaraaja realised the issue, and through his friend Subramanyam, started the Echo Recording Company. Moondram Pirai was first to be distributed by Echo. Until 1991, they were the sole distributors of Ilaiyaraaja’s music and claimed ownership of 359 films in the case against Ilaiyaraaja in 2014. By 1991, he wasn’t receiving the royalties from Echo, so he severed ties with them. He started his own label called Raja Cassettes and later Raja Digital. Gunaa’s Audio Cassette was released under that banner.


But Pyramid Audio claims they bought the rights to his music from Jeeva Ilaiyaraaja (MD of Raja Cassettes). Agi Music was a party in the same suit because they contended that they have perpetual rights for 3811 compositions from 678 movies. They were in contract with Jeeva Ilaiyaraaja to digitally distribute the compositions, and Ilaiyaraaja’s claim was that the contract had expired by 2012 and that they couldn’t continue to exploit it. The contract stated that Ilaiyaraaja would not publish the compositions on his label. However, as the contract ended, Ilaiyaraaja started to have his compositions on digital platforms, including his app, in 2015. 

In 2019, all these cases ended when Justice Anita Sumanth delivered a landmark verdict, giving Ilaiyaraaja moral rights and sole ownership of his compositions. 

What are moral rights? 

The Indian Copyright Law of 1957 specifies the authorship of various creative works. Based on that, the first authors are divided as follows. 

(i) In relation to a literary or dramatic work, the author of the work (stories, poetry, books and lyrics)

(ii) In relation to a musical work, the composer

However, it also gave clauses for movie producers who are considered the master owners of the sound recording. They can sell the rights to any music label and own most of the sound recordings. A few production companies, like Yash Raj Films, still have rights to their songs. 

Why Ilaiyaraaja Is A Misunderstood Activist
Southern Lights: Ilaiyaraaja 75. His Lesser-known Songs For Tamil Heroes

However, a 2012 Amendment made sweeping changes to the copyright law, and one of the prominent figures in bringing this change was Javed Akhtar. He wanted to protect the rights of creators. Three important assertions were made. Firstly, the right to have mandatory royalties; secondly, it provided a provision to retain that royalty (in other words, they can’t write off the rights to anyone); thirdly, it prohibited any contracts that forced the authors to provide perpetual rights to any future technologies (for example, streaming on Spotify doesn’t mean that they can exploit it through AI-based reproduction in the future) (Reddy, 2012). 

The creative work is always attributed to the individual, who can only grant licences to redistribute it. Even then, whoever distributes the work should pay royalties as specified by the author. However, due to the complexity of the Indian model, the act gave provisions to the movie’s producers. The producers own the sound recording along with the movie, and they can redistribute it. For example, if the producers were to re-release Gunaa due to the popularity of Manjummel Boys, Ilaiyaraaja cannot claim any royalties for that redistribution. During and after the passing of this amendment, audio labels and production companies even went on to protest against the amendment. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to be part of mainstream media discussions. 

In the 2019 judgement, Justice Anitha Sampath specifically mentions the moral rights in Points 54, 55 and 56 (Screenshot attached). 

The current case is that of Echo Recording Company (with the backing of Sony), which filed an appeal against this judgement in March 2024. This was followed by the  mainstream media sensationalising the issue by blowing statements from Ilaiyaraaja’s lawyers out of proportion. The next hearing of the case is scheduled for mid-June. However, the bottom line is that the judges did not provide an injunction against Ilaiyaraaja from claiming the rights. Now let us try to answer some common questions posed by debaters of the issue:

1. Is it about royalties or ownership? 

Ilaiyaraaja has always been entitled to royalties, but the contention was the commercial exploitation of songs. Sony tried to get an injunction against Ilaiyaraaja in 2022 to stop him from hosting his songs on YouTube, Spotify and Apple Music. The Bombay High Court denied that injunction, and Sony posted a second version of the identical albums on all these platforms. Currently, you can see two versions of the same album on these platforms (one from IMM, Ilaiyaraaja Music N Management, and one from Sony).

Until 2018, Ilaiyaraaja was part of IPRS, and the IPRS is the only recognised body that provides royalties to more than 4000 creative artists who are members of the society. Their website has instructions on how to licence songs and how the royalties are paid. The society’s work considerably improved after Javed Akhtar took over as Chairman. Ilaiyaraaja could go back to IPRS and be content with the money that he receives. However, he is waging a bigger battle on behalf of composers and creative artists who cannot fight against big corporations. How many composers can send a legal notice to a corporate giant like Sun Pictures or fight a case against Sony? It’s not about the money, but his rights of ownership. 

A still from Coolie
A still from Coolie

2. As a composer, Ilaiyaraaja was an employee of a film, and producers owned the rights. How can he claim them? 

During the 1980s and 1990s, the movie industry ran based on trust. There has been no record of an employer-employee relationship between the producer and the music composer (or any of the technicians). The 2019 judgement explicitly states that movie producers are not available to prove the employer-employee relationship between the producer and Ilaiyaraaja. As mentioned, the producer has rights to the film, not the musical composition. Interestingly, most of the online media outlets and YouTube channels talk about the producer’s rights. Still, the bitter truth is that the audio labels will get everything, and the producer will not receive a penny. On the other hand, Ilaiyaraaja pledged a sum of Rs 50 Crore to the producer council if he won the case. 

3. The audio companies bought the rights from producers. How can Ilaiyaraaja claim them? 

When audio companies bought the rights to the music recording, they purchased it to distribute as cassettes or LP records. After the introduction of CDs, they started distributing them through that medium, and now, they are streaming on websites. They paid once and have been exploiting them commercially in all mediums. How’s this even legally and ethically correct? The 2012 Amendment directly addressed this aspect and said it can’t be perpetual with the advent of new technology. 

4. How about lyricists and singers? Don’t they have rights?

In short, yes, they do. The rights given to Ilaiyaraaja don’t take away the rights of the lyricist or the singer. For example, suppose a concert is organised, and singers sing Ilaiyaraaja’s songs. In that case, they (organisers) will have to pay Ilaiyaraaja for the rights to the songs and pay royalties to the lyricists and singers through IPRS if they are members. Ilaiyaraaja’s counsel specified this in the last hearing of the case. That  lyricists will receive royalties irrespective of who owns them. 

5. Why can’t Ilaiyaraaja be magnanimous and allow younger composers to use parts of his music?

I will switch the argument. The composers and the producers of the companies know that there is an ongoing litigation about the ownership of the songs. They could’ve sought his permission to reuse songs. The makers of Manjummel Boys said they tried to contact him after the movie was a hit in Tamil Nadu, and that Ilaiyaraaja did not meet them. Yuvan Shankar Raja, in an interview with Film Companion, mentioned that he receives a no-objection certificate (NOC) for every song he uses or remixes. The latest being his own father’s ‘Engego Sellum’ from Pattakkathi Bhairavan (1979), used in Pon Ondru Kanden (2024). 

6. Is Ilaiyaraaja greedy? 

Ilaiyaraaja provided two of his songs for an indie movie, Vattara Vazhakku (2023), and re-recorded them with his own lyrics. The director, Kannusamy Rajendran, crowdfunded the film and said he didn’t have money to pay the orchestra and Ilaiyaraaja for the music. During the launch, a teary-eyed Kannusamy recalled how Ilaiyaraaja waived his fee to compose for the movie and used only a fraction of the cost for the orchestra. 

Directors like P Vasu and Prathap Pothen, and producers like Sangili Murugan have attributed the generosity of Ilaiyaraaja to the fact that hasn’t received any remuneration for their debut movies.

All composers assert their copyrights through legal means, but none of them receive the same kind of treatment that Ilaiyaraaja does. AR Rahman didn’t work in Om Shanthi Om because his rights negotiation with the producers (Red Chillies Entertainment) fell through. Rahman wasn’t happy with the remix of Ishwar Allah (originally composed by Rahman for Deepa Mehta’s film 1947 Earth) used in PM Narendra Modi’s biopic. GV Prakash talked about how music labels exploited composers and lyricists as early as 2013. More recently, Santhosh Narayanan released a video claiming that music label Maajha didn’t pay any royalties to him (composer), Dhee(Singer) and Arivu (lyricist and singer) for the global hit number ‘Enjoy Enjaami’. Are these people greedy? If these people are asserting their rights, why is Ilaiyaraaja alone portrayed as greedy? 

Enjoy Enjaami
Enjoy Enjaami

Social media seems to thrives on it, and because Ilaiyaraaja wrote a preface for a book comparing Modi and Ambedkar, there seems to be a concerted effort to spread negativity from the opposite side of the camp, especially handles that claim to be part of the Dravidian Stock. During the copyright issue, they argued that the producers should receive the royalty without understanding the complexities of the issue. Some of them resorted to using casteist memes as a way to joke about the issue. 

Ilaiyaraaja is nominated MP and not an elected MP of BJP. While there can be criticisms of his official position, demeaning his musical prowess and his fight for copyrights is nothing but malice. 

In this country’s harsh political and cultural polarisation, we are losing sight of the critical issues. We criticise individual events rather than systemic issues. We are worried about the semantics rather than the actions. With respect to this struggle in asserting his rights, he is an activist taking on big corporations exploiting the rights of music composers, lyricists, and singers. The problem is he is the only person fighting the war, and even if we cannot support him, why berate him? 

I would like to conclude this argument with this quote from Justice Anitha Sampath, written in the High Court Judgement. 

“The Maestro, Mr.Ilaiyaraja, strode the music world like a colossus, incorporating several novel elements from folk tunes as well as Western sensibilities, merging notes, words, feelings and emotions, seamlessly. To the thousands of his admirers, the author of this judgement included, the music of the Maestro was simply, sheer magic. It dissolved barriers, made the incomplete, complete and the world an infinitesimally better place to be in. Nowhere is this more apparent than from the fact that all counsels who argued the matters, though divided in their interpretation of the law, were united in their adulation of his music”

We should all agree, shouldn’t we?

Related Stories

No stories found.