Abhay Deol versus the Music Label – What just happened?

This past week, Bollywood actor turned producer Abhay Deol announced via social media, his intentions to fight against exploitative contracts allegedly promoted by the music label, T-Series. His colourful campaign quickly spiralled into bad publicity for T-Series, which in turn responded with an official statement explaining their position. The dispute came to an end yesterday when T-Series announced that it will be dropping the movie deal, rather than renegotiate terms.

In case you’re still wondering what’s going on, here’s a consolidated sneak peek into the mess that was, and a little insight into the royalty-clause that seems to have the industry up in arms.

This Photo was shared under a Creative Commons Attribution License and was taken from the Flick Photostream of Zechariah Judy
This Photo was shared under a Creative Commons Attribution License and was taken from the Flick Photostream of Zechariah Judy

So what’s up with Abhay Deol posing with a black eye claiming to have been beaten up by a music label?

If you’ve been following the updates on Bollywood movie releases, you’ll know that “One By Two”, a new romantic comedy is all set to release by the end of this month. Co-produced by Abhay Deol, who also plays the lead in the movie, ‘One By Two” hasn’t received too much publicity, nor has it’s music been promoted or marketed prior to release (a step that usually precedes nearly all big banner movie releases).

According to Abhay Deol, the music label T-Series was to blame since it seemed rather disinterested, if not completely opposed to the music marketing of “One By Two”. So why was the music label playing spoil sport? Abhay Deol claims that T-Series had become uncooperative ever since he refused to persuade composers and musicians (Shankar Mahadevan, Ehsaan Noorani and Loy Mendonsa) affiliated with the movie from signing over their rights in the musical works, as well as their right to receive royalties.

Abhay Deol went public with his stance against the unfair contract provisions on January 14 through a detailed post on his official Facebook page where he also cited the support of industry members Ram Sampat, Sona Mohapatra , Amit Trivedi, Vishal, Shekhar, Javed Akhtar and of course the trio -Shankar Ehsaan and Loy.

Following his facebook post, Abhay Deol was seen sporting a faux black eye at the Screen Awards 2014 Ceremony as a sign of protest and seeking support for his movie – the idea being that T-Series’ actions had left him, his movie and the artists bruised and beaten.


Alright, so what is this illegal contract clause they’re talking about?

At the crux of the dispute is talk of a certain contract provision whereby T-Series had allegedly asked the composer-musicians to hand over their right to receive royalties, as well as their rights in the music. In other words, it was claimed that T-Series was asking for the right to receive royalties due to the composers, instead of them being routed to the musicians or through a copyright collection society (Not sure what that is? Here’s an old post explaining copyright collection societies). The composers claimed that this was extremely unfair and  ‘illegal’, relying on the recent amendments made to the Indian Copyright Act, whereby authors are given the responsibility to ensure that they do not assign, transfer or waive their ability to receive royalties for their works incorporated in a cinematographic work.


Wait, did you say I have a right to royalties?

If you’re wondering why I’ve used the word ‘responsibility’ instead of ‘right’, that’s because Indian law is still a bit unclear on the royalty issue. The statute or the law has been worded a bit weirdly, not indicating whether receiving royalties is really a right guaranteed under the Indian Copyright Act, 2012. In other words, what the amended law highlights is that an agreement that makes you transfer your right to receive royalties becomes void, but that’s only as long as you’re still the copyright owner. So in case you sign an agreement whereby you’ve transferred your copyright in your musical work, then well you’ve also already given up your right to receive royalties (Don’t remember the rights you get with Copyright? Here’s our first post on just that).

In other words, while you can’t have an agreement that exclusively asks you to give up your right to get royalties, there’s nothing that prevents you from giving up this right, as a part of the rights package that you hand over by signing over your copyright.

You can see how this whole thing makes understanding the royalty issue a lot more complex – this is also another reason why it may not be easy to brand the particular contract or clause in question, illegal. Remember, illegal and unfair can be very different things.


What did T-Series say?

In it’s official statement, T-Series attempted addressing the “erroneous understanding and misconceptions being seeded in the media” with respect to the “One By Two” controversy. Claiming no dirty business, T-Series stated quite clearly that their grouse with releasing and promoting the movie’s music had to do with unclear title diligence rather than anything exploitative or personal. According to their statement, T-Series got into this situation thanks to Viacom 18, which claimed that they had acquired the rights over the music in the movie and were willing to sell them to T-Series. Although T-Series initially looked like it was interested in a compromise of some sort, it chose instead to drop the deal with Viacom 18 and Abhay Deol entirely, leaving the actor-turned producer in the lurch. Abhay Deol has gone on record stating that he’s glad he didn’t encourage exploitative industry practices but that unfortunately, he would be unable to make “One By Two” music available on commercial CDs.


Hmm, so the music label wins again?

Well not exactly. Truth be told, this wasn’t much of a win for T-Series nor will it be a huge loss for Abhay Deol (this dispute might’ve actually got his movie more attention than he bargained for). This dispute just highlights a few problem areas in the commercial music industry that need some desperate attention. First, there needs to be more clarity with respect to provisions in the law concerning royalties, copyright collection societies and copyright assignment. Second, unlikely as it seems, the industry would do well to adopt a more balanced approach towards business. The focus needs to shift from an unhappy exploitative relationship to one of mutual benefits and level playing. Third, there needs to be more awareness with respect to artist rights along with greater artist solidarity.

A bit too optimistic? Maybe. What do you think about royalties, artist rights and music labels? Share what you feel and what you know in the comments below.

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