The Telegraph
| Sunday, January 19, 2014 |


The Wednesday syndrome

Call it the war within. The entertainment industry is in a churn, what with legal suits being filed every week. Kavitha Shanmugam and V. Kumara Swamy explain why

Wednesday is the new Friday for Bollywood. Once, filmmakers and distributors paced nervously on Fridays, as they waited for their films to hit the theatres. Now Friday doesn't trouble them much — but they heave a sigh of relief when Wednesday ends without a bang, or a whimper.

It's a running joke at the Indian Motion Picture Producers' Association (IMPPA) office in Andheri. "If Wednesday and Thursday pass off peacefully, we jokingly congratulate the filmmaker whose film is to be released that week," IMPPA honorary secretary Naresh Mohnot says.

The issue revolves around the emergence of law suits in recent times. "Since 2010, there has been a sudden rise in intellectual property litigation involving film titles, copyright infringement in songs or scripts and other industry IP-related issues," holds Aditya Kutty, IP lawyer at Saikrishna and Associates, New Delhi. He attributes this to the "globalisation" of the film industry and a surge in the number of Indian film releases.

The cases can deal with any aspect of a film — from its title and song to its script and lyrics. Recently, composer A.R. Rahman threatened to move court, claiming that he held the copyright for the title of the Salman Khan-starrer Jai Ho. Rahman and the film's producers have now settled the matter.

In another recent case, a lyricist sued a television company three days before the start of a serial. "The serial was named after a film's title song that the lyricist had written. The producers had taken permission from the music company which owned the song and they thought the matter ended there," says Aditya N. Bhuta, a Mumbai-based attorney who deals with many cases relating to copyright issues.

When the lyricist went to court, the television company settled the matter because it wanted the series to be released as scheduled.

Filing a case before a film or a serial's launch, of course, is pure strategy. If a film is dragged to court on a Wednesday just before its release, chances are that it won't be released as scheduled. A suit filed on a Wednesday often means a quick out-of-court settlement.

"They (litigants) know that if they file a case on a Wednesday, just two days before the release of a film, the producer will fall at their feet and call for an immediate settlement. We have no doubt that in most cases it is blackmail," Mohnot says.

The litigants, on the other hand, stress that it's a good tactic. "Some of our clients want us to file a case on Wednesday as there is a greater chance of an out-of-court settlement," Bhuta says, adding that around 80 per cent of the cases end in such settlements.

But industry watchers stress that while the Wednesday syndrome is an irritant, the issue of litigation is a serious one. Bhuta points out that in the last three years, film and television related cases — most of them centred on copyright of songs, lyrics and scripts — have gone up by more than 100 per cent in his firm.

"Movie litigations have gone up three fold," holds M.S. Bharath, partner, Anand and Anand, the Delhi-based law firm, which has been handling many such cases.

One of the reasons litigation is on the rise is the escalating feud between music composers, song and film writers and singers on one side and producers, film distributors and music companies on the other.

"If this problem of copyright violations and royalty is not resolved, I think most producers, music companies and others holding rights of films would be spending more time in courts than in film studios and their offices," says Sanjay Tandon, managing director, Indian Singers' Rights Association (IRSA).

Comprising lyricists, composers and singers, IRSA now threatens to take legal action against producers and music companies which refuse to recognise royalty rights spelled out by a 2012 law. According to the amendment to the copyright law, lyricists and singers should get 50 per cent of royalties for any commercial use of the song.

To bypass the law, some producers and music companies are apparently trying to backdate contracts to pre-amendment days or offering a lump sum royalty for life.

"Effectively, they are asking us to break the law. And we will not do that. Why should anybody forgo their rights," asks lyricist Javed Akhtar.

Singer Sonu Nigam describes it as "a fight to the finish". He walked out of the film Heartless when he was urged to sign away his royalty rights. Abhay Deol's film One By Two has been stalled because the music company, T-Series, has allegedly refused to recognise the royalty rights of the musicians associated with the film — including music composers Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy. Deol, the only star to endorse the views of songwriters, composers and singers, has been walking around with a cosmetic-induced black eye, to indicate that he's been hit.

Music companies led by T-Series refuse to budge. "None of our agreements is against the provisions of the Copyright Act, 1957. We have in fact adopted these (methods) after exercising due diligence and obtaining expert legal advice," T-Series president Neeraj Kalyan asserts in a press statement.

As the feud continues, the industry fears, so will litigation. Rajesh Thadani, one of Bollywood's largest distributors, says his office expects a court notice just before the release of every film. "It's a free-for-all these days. With creative people now threatening to sue us, the industry is on the verge of a major crisis."

Some years ago, the industry was besieged by cases filed by Western film companies. Bollywood had for long been adapting Western films (and songs) without permission, but a few cases put an end to that trend three years ago.

"With increased corporatisation and multinational production companies entering India, we thought that we should be careful about international copyright laws. But we never thought that our own industry people would hold us to ransom," Bollywood producer and director Vicky Ranawat says.

In fact, international companies see an improvement in India as far as infringement of copyrights of their films is concerned. "We have been seeing fewer people violating the copyright of our films. I think filmmakers in India have changed their attitude towards Hollywood films," says Dina Dattani, head, business affairs and legal, Fox Star Studios, India.

Now that the pressure from Hollywood has eased, there is trouble from within. But it's not always the insider that goes to court. In the 2013 blockbuster Yeh Jaawani Hai Deewani, the hero snaps at his stepmother when she offers him a glass of Rooh Afza, calling it a "bahut bekaar" drink. Soon after the film was released, the manufacturers of the sherbet, Hamdard National Foundation, sued the filmmakers. Last year, the Delhi High Court ruled that the "offending dialogues" be removed.

But while such cases are being sorted in and outside courts, the focus is now on the threat of new cases, with the battle for copyright escalating. On January 10, 2014, Dharmesh Tiwari, president of the Federation of Western India Cine Employees, a conglomerate of 22 associations of various crafts related to cinema, called for a "minimum basic contract" to be signed, recognising the right of writers, lyricists and others on films, in a letter to producers, distributors and actors.

"We will not allow anybody to infringe on the rights of the artistes. We are ready to go on a strike if necessary," Tiwari thunders.

A few producers have been hoping for a rapprochement. "All these years, the industry's problems were solved within the industry. I hope there is a way out so that the situation doesn't go out of hand," says Hiren Gada, director, Shemaroo Entertainment. Shemaroo is the copyright holder of more than 1,000 Hindi films.

Some producers, however, are in no mood to budge. "Once we pay the lyric writer, singer and the music director for their job the transaction is over, in my opinion," says leading Tamil film producer Vijay Kumar, a former vice-president of the South Indian Film Chamber of Commerce. "We are the rightful owner; we are investing so much money so the works are ours."

Observers believe that the churn in the film world relates to changes that are occurring in the film industry. Litigation is just a sign of the ensuing teething problems. "The biggest problem in the film industry was the lack of written agreements in the past. That is slowly changing," lawyer Bharath points out. Bhuta agrees. "The main job of some people in my office is to prepare agreements for producers, songwriters and others. They never bothered us for such agreements earlier," he adds.

Hindi films — with their feel-good messages of brotherhood — will be able to handle the wars within, some argue. "The industry is known for its bhaichara (brotherhood)," Mohnot says.

Akhtar scoffs. "It is because of this bhaichara that we have been quiet for so long. Now it's the time for action."