The Venus Flytrap: To Whom The Song Belongs

Every time I hear the original “Masakali”, I think of the first time I heard it. A friend had sent me a video in which the melody was overlaid on a black and white clip of slapstick comedians Laurel and Hardy dancing. Something had upset me, and he’d sent it to lighten my mood. I’ve long forgotten what I was miserable about, but I’ve never been able to listen to that song without thinking of him.

Many popular works of art have such a mnemonic effect on us, conjuring everything from teenage summers, indelible loves, special trips and more. “Masakali” must mean a lot of things, to a lot of people. So, how many seconds of “Masakali 2.0” did it take for you to recognise that the remix was a dud?

The song’s composer A.R. Rahman criticised the rendition on social media, in a departure from his congenial public image. Playback singer Mohit Chauhan, who recorded the original, also expressed his dismay. All this is not just drama fodder. It reveals the seedy underside of being an art-maker within capitalism.

Shortly afterwards, playback singer Neha Kakkar spoke up about being insufficiently compensated for her work in cinema; she said that concerts provided better income. It bears remembering that the iconic Leonard Cohen was forced to resume touring in his 70s to evade bankruptcy.

Many of us are guilty of falling for the notion that music, or any art, is free. It’s nice to think that a beautiful song belongs to everyone; and in a sense, it could. It’s just that someone made that song. More than one someone, sometimes. To create a thing of beauty or meaning and to give it away is very different from losing it, or losing one’s claim over it – or never being paid enough for it, literally.

In 1974, Dolly Parton turned down the chance to have Elvis Presley record a song she wrote, “I Will Always Love You”, giving up the potential for it to be even more popular and lucrative. Presley’s manager had demanded half the publishing rights to the song, and Parton made the painful decision to reject the deal. This was a brave choice, but such a choice isn’t always available to every creator. Especially when one needs the money, needs the door to open, or knows they may not get another opportunity.

The Covid-19 lockdowns have made TV shows, films, music and books an integral part of how people (with the privilege of access) are managing the situation, especially from the perspective of emotional well-being. Most people really are grateful for these entertainment and enrichment materials, no longer taking them for granted. However, this gratitude can be made more meaningful by sparing a thought for what will likely happen to the creators of the same artforms in the near future, economically speaking. This will impact what gets produced, promoted or published at all. Whether as artists or as consumers, we must become invested in dismantling capitalism as it exists today and reassembling better systems – systems which ensure that no one goes hungry, regardless of their profession or background, and also recognise the arts as essentials.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 16th 2020. “The Venus Flytrap” appears  in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Mira Sundara Rajan: Moral Rights

Your new book, Moral Rights, deals with the issue of intellectual property in the digital domain, which is a new area of concern. Can you give us a brief introduction to moral rights and their doctrine?

Basically, moral rights protect an author’s non-commercial, personal and cultural rights. The expression comes from the French – droit moral – which means “personal rights” or “intellectual rights”, but doesn’t have the same connotation in English. Attribution and integrity are the two rights that are protected: attribution is the right to be named and identified as the author, and integrity is what protects the work from harm (for example, preventing a moustache being painted on the Mona Lisa!). The moral rights aspect of creative work in the technological context has not been addressed. Discussion of copyright issues, especially at the international level is focused on the economic rights and how much money an author can make from his or her work. My interest is in the cultural side of things, not the economic side. And I think it’s a serious concern in the Internet age. To give you an example, a person could find a poem online that is attributed to Subramania Bharati, He or she would suffer the harm of false knowledge; this would affect how someone understands his or her own culture.

You’ve explored moral rights in various global contexts in your book. Do you feel that the concept, or the understanding of it, varies based on the cultural and historical framework?

The short answer is: it does, yes. Each country has its own perspective on moral rights, depending not just on legal factors but also on cultural factors. The law is really an expression of the culture. I’ll give you two examples – in England, they have moral rights in the Copyright Act, but they are bit skeptical about authors’ personal interests, so they don’t really embrace the concept. And in contrast would be India, which has a very strong understanding of moral rights, and even more than the government, the courts really feel they have a mission to protect India’s culture.

But the protection of culture is also something that has been co-opted by religious fundamentalists, communalists, misogynists and the like. How do you see this in relation to moral rights?

Actually, moral rights are a very important way of fighting against that. The whole concept of moral rights is to protect the special relationship between an author and his or her work. So think of the implications for censorship for example – no one can interfere with that relationship if the moral right is upheld. For example, Anand Patwardhan sued because parts of his film had been reused by filmmakers who had misrepresented his secular perspective, and the Mumbai High Court upheld his right.

How are moral rights placed in relation to the Copyleft movement, and movements like Creative Commons?

The common wisdom is that moral rights and Copyleft/Creative Commons don’t get along. But if you look more closely, they actually do protect moral rights. My observation is that they are highly compatible. In the US, apart from one very conservative federal law that only covers visual arts, they have no legislative protection for moral rights. In this sense, the Creative Commons might be the only protection generally available there for moral rights because the Creative Commons system of licenses is based on attribution. The Creative Commons community is really interested in protecting the quality of the knowledge that is disseminated, protecting it from adulteration. But, these movements – Open Source, Copyleft, Creative Commons – the question of how authors are supposed to earn a living from their work, and I do criticize them for this in my book. In order to write the book, I had to take a year’s sabbatical, and I question whether any serious author could have done otherwise. There has to be a way to provide financial support for artists and writers.

What are your thoughts on censorship, which is also connected to creative rights and freedoms?

I think censorship is a very bad thing, to put it very simply, and I think moral rights are a very important legal mechanism to protect people from censorship. And remember you are protecting both the author and the reader, because censorship distorts the truth, it distorts what was created, and that is just as bad for the reader as for the writer.

Intellectual property law is only one aspect of your work – you’re also an acclaimed classical pianist. How does your academic research lend itself to your creative life, and vice versa?

They have quite a natural relationship. I got interested in this aspect of law because I am an artist. And the artistic community is interested in me because of my knowledge of IP rights. I think it’s much easier, or even necessary, to have an understanding of art in order to have an understanding of IP law. And that’s a deficiency a lot of IP lawyers have – they don’t understand the psychological impact of how an artist feels when something is done to his or her work.

I don’t mean to embarrass you, but do you feel genius can be inherited? You’re a great-granddaughter of Subramania Bharati, after all.

No, I don’t think so. I think genius is the most unexpected thing in the universe. It can come up anywhere, and that’s why it is wonderful. In the US there are a lot of parents who think they can educate their children to be geniuses from the age of 2! But the factors that make a person a genius are so complex – it has to do with historical circumstances, the environment and many other factors. I don’t want to discredit my great-grandfather for my own accomplishments, whatever they may be, because of the access to education I had because of him, and my family background. My mother was the first Bharati scholar, and my father was an English professor and Bharati devotee, so I had a parallel education in addition to school. The environment in which I grew up was completely shaped by Bharati’s writings and his ideas on education and the development of the human personality. But Bharati’s own example is a case in point of the unexpectedness of genius. Why would this man coming from Ettayapuram think that he could singlehandedly get rid of the British empire, which was then the most powerful entity on earth? And he did, in a sense.

You also write poetry, but have only published your academic work so far. Can you tell us more about your poetry, what inspires it, and why you haven’t yet shared it with the world as you have your compositions and legal research?

I write poetry and prose (short stories and non-fiction essays). I’ve been writing since I was about 7 years old and the prosaic answer to your question is that I just haven’t had the time to do anything with it because of my education and what followed. But I have plans. In terms of what it’s about, there are lots of different themes; I am interested in all aspects of human experience. Bharati is definitely an inspiration because his writing is very comprehensive and deals with aspects of life. His optimism as an artist and thinker is also unique, and a tremendous inspiration.. The classics are important to me – I’ve read a lot of French literature in the original, and because of my interest in Russia, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are also influences. Reading bad writing can be like eating junk food.!

Having grown up outside of India, in what ways – if any – do you remain connected to this cultural ethos?

It is important to me and my connection is really through Subramania Bharati. That’s everything.

An edited version appeared in today’s The Hindu.