Copyright and Classical Music – A look at Infringement claims over Carnatic Music

This post was written by our intern, Raji Gururaj

A few weeks ago, The Hindu ran an article about YouTube slamming copyright violation notices on a channel that uploaded a Carnatic music rendition on World Music Day. To Indian classical music aficionados and legal eagles, this has come as a shocker, and has been met with severe disapproval. This rather warped, but not isolated instance is one of recording companies claiming copyright over classical music compositions and getting artistic work taken off YouTube, despite the channel having taken permission from the singer and the organizers of the concert. There is also a petition protesting such claim of copyright, with over 1400 signatures.

This photo was shared under a Creative Commons Attribution License and was taken from the Flickr photo stream of Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

This photo was shared under a Creative Commons Attribution License and was taken from the Flickr photo stream of Jean-Pierre Dalbéra

Do you think classical music, such as Carnatic or Hindustani music, or the compositions of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart, are in the public domain? Can one use such music in a documentary or as background to a slideshow, or play it at a restaurant, etc. without paying royalties? If your answer is leaning towards a yes, it’s time to think again, as the answer requires some knowledge about such music itself, before addressing copyright concerns.

Carnatic music is a cultural legacy, with a history that goes back several hundreds of years, and is based on strict rules of raga (melody), tala (rhythm), shruti (pitch) etc. Composed by greats such as Tyagaraja, Muthuswamy Dikshitar, and Shyama Shastry, the music is studied and passed on over generations. Each rendition allows flexibility in raga, shruti, and gives room for variation and improvisation. Hence, each artist performing a piece of Carnatic music has his own expression of the original composition. The compositions are merely laid down in swaras – the popularly known notes of Indian music, sa ri ga ma. These compositions are not only highly revered, but also the very idea of anyone owning them is repulsive to those who worship Carnatic music.

Carnatic music, having been passed down over generations in a largely oral tradition, has never confronted the concept of ownership of music. Only identifiable words (known as the mudra) in the composition indicate the name of the composer. Also, each rendition of a particular composition has variances that can be slight, or even remarkable. To a trained ear, a rendition of Kurai Onrum Illai by M.S. Subbulakshmi would be very different from that sung by Sudha Raghunathan. A rendition of Paluke Bangaramyena by Balamurali Krishna would be remarkably different from that of Bombay Jayashree. The same piece of music could be played on an instrument or sung a thousand times over, in a thousand different ways.


 What about Copyright?

Copyright protects creative expressions, and not ideas themselves. With respect to Carnatic music, the composition made ages ago would be the idea, and the creative rendition by each artist would be the expression. Say, the song Innu Daya Barade composed by Purandara Dasa cannot be copyrighted in itself by an artist or recording house. However, the artist can claim copyright over his particular rendition.

Even with respect to Western classical music, the copyrights over the compositions having long expired, the music is not free to use, because the recording company or artist performing the particular piece has a copyright over it.

What was the YouTube-Parivadini controversy?

This photo was shared under a Creative Commons Attribution License and was taken from the Flickr Photostream of jonsson

This photo was shared under a Creative Commons Attribution License and was taken from the Flickr Photostream of jonsson

With the advent of online portals, the access to Carnatic music online has increased tremendously. Parivadini is one such YouTube channel, which aims to increase access to Carnatic music by publicizing kutcheris (concerts/ performances). The channel has taken permission from artists and organizers of the concert, so there can be no infringement claim for bootlegging here. The infringement claims are being made by recording houses and the Indian Performing Arts Society, through YouTube’s content ID system. When a video is uploaded, this mechanism scans it for violations and notifies the content owner, who is provided with several options to deal with the infringement.

The shocker is because these claims are made against the song itself, and this very concept is perceived by the learned in Carnatic music as outrageous and unacceptable. The problem stems from the fact that YouTube failed in distinguishing between the copyright claims over a particular recording, versus that over the composition itself.


The channel stands to be taken down, if three copyright infringement claims have been made. The nuisance of dealing with such claims on a day to day basis is also counterproductive. Further, Parivadini has said that a video gets the maximum number of hits in the first month after it has been posted, but the copyright claim puts the video in cold storage, and the channel ultimately suffers, even if the claim is in no way reasonable.

While the Content ID system might have served some use with other genres of music, it has also created a staggering number of problems, and YouTube’s apathy to the different genres of music is disheartening. It is at once ridiculous for a recording label to claim copyright over the song itself. Its copyright only extends to a particular rendition, which cannot then be copied or used without permission, but definitely not the composition itself.

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