News & Cues: Music, Lyrics and Censorship

A couple days ago, Anirudh Ravichander – the composer of the hit song ‘Kolaveri Di’ previewed his new indie single on Youtube. Anirudh’s song has been met with some criticism owing to the nature of the song’s lyrics as well as the video, which allegedly portrays women in a derogatory light. The song has prompted a few interesting reactions including one from a Chennai based lawyer who filed a complaint against the composer, claiming that Anirudh is in violation of the Information Technology Act, the Indian Penal Code and the Indian Cinematography Act.

This is definitely not the first song lyrics have come under legal scrutiny – as a matter of fact, lyrical content is often the subject of some interesting, embarrassing and expensive litigation. Curious? Then here’s a bit more on that, as well as some information on what you as a lyricist need to remember.

This photo was taken by the author of this blog
This photo was taken by the author of this blog

Let’s start at the beginning – can a song’s lyrics be protected?

The answer to this is fairly obvious – yes, song lyrics can be protected by way of copyright. This is something that is pretty easy to gather after a reading of the Indian Copyright Act, 2012 (Section 13) or the US Copyright Act contained in Title 17 of the United States Code (Section 102) [This post is drawing on examples and cases in India and the United States of America].

Lyrical content can be considered for copyright protection either by way of being considered a literary work or a musical work (Here’s an old post about Copyright and how it works). At this point, it’s just as important to mention that you can also loosen up the exclusivity boundaries surrounding the lyrical content you’ve created and encourage it’s availability, incorporation or creative modification by way of making the lyrics available to the public under a Creative Commons License (Learn the basics of Creative Commons to check if it works for you here).

If the title or name of your song is a long phrase that’s pretty unique, then you might have a chance protecting it by way of a copyright but if it’s a relatively generic sounding name protection is a little hard to guarantee. If your song is really popular and has a not so ordinary name, then you can go ahead and trademark the title (and here’s an old post on how Trademark works). So as you can see, there’s all sorts of ways in which lyrical content can be protected.

Great! So this means I can own rights to lyrics – but what else does it mean?

When you own or lay claim to something, you’re kind of responsible for it too. This is particularly true for artistic expression and lyrics are nowhere near being an exception to this understanding. As the author/or owner of lyrical content, it’s upto you to ensure that those lyrics really convey what you want to, without actually hurting anyone else’s sentiments or interests. In other words, it’s upto you to make sure that your lyrics don’t infringe someone else’s copyright or violate any other laws related to public morality, obscenity or decency. This means that you need to watch out what your words are actually saying.

So lyrics or a song name can get me in trouble – really?

Well you’d be surprised. Tons of artists – Elton John, Ariana Grande, Eminem – all of them have had to deal with allegations of copying lyrics and infringing someone else’s copyright over lyrical content – and that’s just the easy way to get in trouble. Not so long ago, American pop-rock band Fall out Boy decided to change the name of their song from “My name is David Ruffin and these are the Temptations” to “Our Lawyer Made Us Change the Name of This Song So We Wouldn’t Get Sued” because well, as you might’ve guessed they were afraid of a law suit. In 2012, Psy of Gangam style fame released an official statement in response to the widespread criticism that he received for the seemingly anti-american lyrical content of a song he worked on with Korean rock band NEXT. In his statement, Psy clarified that although he appreciated the freedom to express oneself, he understood that there were limits to such expression in terms of what may be deemed appropriate language.

In 2012 Indian rapper-singer and music producer, Yo Yo Honey Singh got a lot of flack for his lyrics that seemed to encourage violent and sexually aggressive behaviour towards women. His music received a lot of negative attention in the days to follow the 2012 Nirbhaya Rape Incident with several activist groups even floating petitions to stop Honey Singh’s performance at a Delhi based hotel – a campaign that proved quite successful. Again in 2013, a Public Interest Litigation or PIL was filed against the release of the Bollywood movie ‘Boss’ that featured a song by Yo Yo Honey Singh on the grounds that it contained inappropriate-vulgar language, and had not received the necessary release required from the Central Board of Film Certification (The Censor board’s approval of song lyrics in movies was something discussed greatly in the Mudgal Committee Report released last year which you can read about briefly here). So as you can see, lyrics and song names have the potential to create a lot of trouble.

And what about the Chennai based lawyer’s complaint?

In his complaint against Anirudh Ravichander’s music video teaser trailer, the Chennai based lawyer, S Jebadas Pandian has expressed his disappointment with the composer and his shock in response to a music video that was full of lyrics that seemed derogatory to women. The complaint mentions three legal grounds:

(a)   Release under the Indian Cinematographic Act, 1952: For starters, the complaint states that all movie trailers and previews need the clearance of the Central Board of Film Certification (or the Censor board) – something that has allegedly not been taken by Anirudh prior to his video-teaser release. In addition, the recent Mudgal Committee Report also recommended that song lyrics come under scrutiny, considering that accompanying video is already subject to similar clearance.

(b)   Objectionable material as per the provisions of the Information Technology Act, 2000: The Information Technology Act makes the electronic publication and transmission of “any material which is lascivious or appeal to the prurient interest or if its effect is such as to tend to deprave and corrupt persons” punishable. This means that sharing objectionable and offensive material online, including videos is in violation of the Information Technology Act.

(c)   Invoking the Indian Penal Code: The Indian Penal Code or the IPC makes the availability, distribution or performance of lascivious, obscene material punishable by way of several provisions. From a combined reading with the relevant provisions from the Information Technology Act, suffice to say that inappropriate and offensive content published in print and digital formats can be grounds for punishment.

This photo was taken by the author of this blog

But hey, who’s to say what’s good and bad content?

This post is really not about helping you or others figure out what is appropriate and inappropriate content. Nothing here can help you explore the thin line between the obscene and aesthetic, but this post aims at letting you know that it’s important you’re clear about what you’re putting out there as an artist, so as to be able to make informed artistic decisions and take responsibility for the responses your work prompts from public exhibition.

So what do I need to take away from this discussion on lyrics and censorship?

 As an artist, lyrics and words might be a very important avenue of expression for you, yet as was mentioned earlier on in this post (paraphrasing Psy), the freedom to express yourselves needn’t come at the cost of inappropriate behaviour. As a person, it’s difficult to figure out what counts as acceptable and unacceptable expression and so needless to say, applying the censorship filter to all of this only makes everything a lot more complicated. So here’s a really simple thing to remember before releasing your next lyrical piece (or any form of artistic expression) – make sure that you know what’s at stake when you’re exhibiting your work, and make sure that you can stand by it in the event of a legal mess.

Do you know any artists who got into a legal jam owing to their lyrical or video content? Do you think they deserved it? What does freedom of expression mean to you as a creative entrepreneur or artist? Do share in the comments below.

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