Recently, the Madras High Court (the "Court"), in a copyright infringement dispute between Indian Record Manufacturing Co. Ltd. and Mr. Illaiyaraja, revisited the principles of first ownership and assignment of copyrights with respect to musical works constituting underlying works in cinematograph films under the Copyright Act, 1957 (the "Copyright Act").The Court discussed the rights of composers of the underlying works, producers of films in which such underlying works are used, and the assignees of such works.
The case  and its findings are discussed elaborately as follows:
- BACKGROUND OF THE CASE
The suit was instituted by the Indian music company, Indian Record Manufacturing Co. Ltd. ("IRMCL"), seeking permanent injunction against Agi Music Sdn Bhd, Mr. Illaiyaraja and Unisys Info Solutions Private Ltd. for infringement of its copyright over the entire musical works and sound recordings contained in 30 identified feature films produced between 1978 to 1980 ("Suit Films"). The case of IRMCL is that Mr. Illaiyaraja, who is a renowned South Indian film composer, singer, songwriter, instrumentalist, orchestrator, conductor-arranger and lyricist, gave the right of administering the musical work of all his songs in feature films produced before 2000, including those in the Suit Films, to Agi Music Sdn Bhd, a Malaysian music company.
It was the contention of IRMCL that they were the exclusive copyright owner of the musical works and sound recordings contained in the Suit Films by virtue of the written agreements of assignment executed by IRMCL with the respective film producers of the Suit Films, who according to IRMCL were the first owners of the musical works. All the assignment agreements were produced before the Court.
In defence, Mr. Illaiyaraja claimed copyright over his musical work as the composer/author of the work and denied IRMCL's claim that the producers of the Suit Films are the first owners of the musical compositions and the sound recordings composed by him. Mr. Illaiyaraja also claimed that the copyright of the owner of a cinematograph film cannot impeach the copyright of the author of the underlying musical works. No documents or evidence was led by Mr. Illaiyaraja in support of his claims and statements. The other defendants remained ex parte.
- ISSUES AND FINDINGS OF THE COURT
The substantive issues that were addressed and determined by the Court, are discussed as under:
- Who is the first owner of musical works composed by Mr. Illaiyaraja?
In deciding this issue, the Court noted that the word "owner" and the word "author" connote different meanings under the Copyright Act. The Court observed that the "author" of different kinds of copyright works have been clearly defined under the Copyright Act, and in case of a cinematograph film, i.e., a composite work, the producer is its author. Additionally, the Court observed that the "first ownership" of a cinematograph film also lies with the producer, unless there is an agreement to the contrary in terms of Section 17(b)  of the Copyright Act.
The Court reaffirmed that the producer is rightly given the absolute rights of authorship of the composite work and first ownership (if there is no agreement to the contrary) because he takes the responsibility and initiatives of blending several intellectual works and performances together, for which he invests and engages with several authors and performers of underlying works; and only he has the right to disintegrate the blending, if needed, to carry out the assignments as per Section 19  of the Copyright Act.
With regard to the copyrightable subjects in the matter, the Court held that in case of a musical work in isolation, Mr. Illaiyaraja is the author of the underlying musical works composed by him, but where the musical work forms part of a cinematograph film as sound recording, the producers of the Suit Films are the authors of their respective Suit Films. As regards the first ownership, in the absence of any agreement to contrary, the producers are the first owners of the copyright in respective Suit Films (including sound recordings) as per Section 17(b) of the Copyright Act; and only they could disintegrate and assign the underlying works of their respective Suit Films as per Section 19 of the Copyright Act.
- Whether the copyright of the owner would impeach the copyright of the author?
Relying on an earlier judgment of the Court in Agi Music Sdn Bhd. v. Mr. Illaiyaraja  as well as IPRS Limited v. Eastern Indian Motion Pictures Association and Others , the Court answered this issue in the affirmative.
The Court highlighted that in view of Section 17(b) and (c) of the Copyright Act, which provisions deal with creating copyrightable works on work-for-hire basis , the Court reconfirmed that in the absence of any agreement to contrary, the person commissioning or employing, as the case may be, will be the first owner of copyright in such work-for-hire work; and the right of the owner will certainly override the right of the author.
- While the producers of the respective Suit Films are the first owner of the copyright therein, whether Mr. Illaiyaraja can claim any independent copyright over same as the music composer?
The Court held that Mr. Illaiyaraja cannot stake any claim of copyright over the musical work forming a part of the Suit Films as he has no contracts with the film producers to that effect. Instead, he is vested only with the special rights or moral rights, which include protection from distortion, mutilation, modification, etc., in connection with his musical works, as mentioned in Section 57 of the Copyright Act .
On the basis of the above, the Court concluded that the producers of the Suit Films had the right to assign the copyright in their respective Suit Films to others. The Court therefore in view of Section 18(2) of the Copyright Act  held that IRMCL had become the owner of the copyright in the Suit Films and have exclusive right to exploit the musical works.
The suit before the Madras High Court was decided in favour of IRMCL.
- INDUSLAW VIEW
This judgement is significant as it reaffirms the copyrights of the producers of cinematograph films while regarding the moral rights of artists and performers contributing underlying works for such cinematograph films. In a way, it clarifies situations when the rights and ownership of composers and other artists would be absolute and when the rights of the producers would override them, in terms of the provisions of the Copyright Act.
The judgement once again draws a clear line between the "owners" and the "authors" of copyright in a work under the Copyright Act. It reaffirms the established position of law that only the "owner" of copyright has the right to commercialize the work as a whole or independently. If and when assigned, the assignee would become the absolute owner of the copyright and has the right to commercialize. Said right to commercialize cannot be exercised even by the "author" of such work, including underlying works such as musical works or sound recordings; and if he exercises such right without any valid authorization of the "owner", his actions would amount to infringement. An author's moral rights under the Copyright Act merely include the right of attribution and right to prevent distortion of their works.
Additionally, the judgment provides an all-inclusive view of the requirements to establish the ownership with regard to a copyright subsisting in musical works and sound recordings in cinematograph films and focuses on how the burden of proof can be discharged by a right holder in a suit for enforcing their intellectual property rights.
 Indian Record Manufacturing Co. Ltd. v. Agi Music Sdn Bhd And Others (C.S. No. 296 of 2016 & O.A. No. 338 of 2010)
 Section 17(b) of the Copyright Act – "in the case of a photograph taken, or a painting or portrait drawn, or an engraving or a cinematograph film made, for valuable consideration at the instance of any person, such person shall, in the absence of any agreement to the contrary, be the first owner of the copyright therein"
 Section 19 of the Copyright Act provides how an assignment of copyright should be done.
 2019 SCC Online (Mad) 1960
 1977 (2) SCC 820
 While Section 17(b) of the Copyright Act deals with making certain copyright subjects, including, but not limited to, cinematograph films, on commission basis, Section 17(c) of the Copyright Act covers any work made by a composer during his employment with the producer.
 Section 57 of the Copyright Act – "Independently of the author's copyright and even after the assignment either wholly or partially of the said copyright, the author of a work shall have the right— (a) to claim authorship of the work; and (b) to restrain or claim damages in respect of any distortion, mutilation, modification or other act in relation to the said work if such distortion, mutilation, modification or other act would be prejudicial to his honour or reputation..."
 Section 18(2) of the Copyright Act – "Where the assignee of a copyright becomes entitled to any right comprised in the copyright, the assignee as respects the rights so assigned, and the assignor as respects the rights not assigned, shall be treated for the purposes of this Act as the owner of copyright and the provisions of this Act shall have effect accordingly."
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