Bill of rights

The list of planned business for the monsoon session of Parliament includes consideration of amendments to the Copyright Act, 1957. The bill has evoked sharp reaction from movie producers and book publishers. It has been examined by the Standing Committee on HRD, but the government has not yet indicated its comments on the panel’s recommendations.

The contentious parts of the bill include four key provisions. One, the bill provides that the principal director of a movie should have joint copyright with the producer. Two, it prohibits songwriters and composers of film songs from giving away their rights to producers when their work is used in other media (for instance, as mobile-phone ringtones). Three, it states that the author of a work (and his or her legal heirs) will retain the right to claim damages for an indefinite period. Four, it permits import of books without infringing copyright.

There are several other provisions in the bill, on which there is a broad agreement. These include the provision for allowing copyrighted work being reproduced in special formats (such as Braille) for the physically challenged, and penalties for circumventing technological measures meant to protect copyright.

Typically, laws that govern intellectual property rights such as copyright try to strike a balance between two competing objectives. The creator of an intellectual property should have the right to economic benefits from the product, which would encourage investment of time and effort in creative work. At the same time, there should be provisions for the general public to benefit from these creative works, and to permit other creators to build on these works. Most laws, therefore, provide for a copyright term, after which the economic benefits do not accrue to the creators. They also permit compulsory licensing of works during the copyright period. We examine the four issues listed above, and see how the balance between the rights of the various creators and the general public could be affected.

Principal director versus producer. Should the principal director of a film share copyright? The proponents argue that the director is the main creative mind behind the making of a film. The opponents state that the producer takes all the financial risk and should be the sole beneficiary after he has discharged contractual dues to all the creative artists involved in making the film. In any case, this provision can be easily circumvented by the producer by giving himself the additional title of principal director. The standing committee has sided with the latter view and recommended that this proposal be dropped.

The songwriter/ composer versus producer debate has been stormy. The songwriters contend that movie producers have enormous bargaining power, and can require them to assign away their rights as part of their contract. The benefits from a hit song used as caller tunes and ring tones accrue entirely to the producer. Songwriters and composers seek to rectify the balance by removing their right to assign copyright to anyone except their legal heirs and copyright society when the work is used in media other than films and music recordings. In a sense, they ask that their right be curtailed so that they cannot be exploited. The standing committee concurs with their view.

The Copyright Act states that authors of any work have perpetual right to claim authorship to their work. They also have the right to claim damages against modification or distortion of their work that adversely affects their reputation — this right subsists for the period of the economic right (for example, till 60 years after the death of an author of a book). The bill extends the latter right in perpetuity. This implies that the freedom to create new artistic works, such as parodies or remixes, after the expiration of the copyright may be affected.

On import of published work, the bill provides that if a work is published in a country with the permission of its author, then it may be imported to India. Authors may use different publishers in different countries, or publishers may price their books differently. This provision permits anyone to import the cheapest versions, and sell them in India. Expectedly, publishers who have differential pricing strategies have objected to this provision. However, the standing committee has supported the provision stating that it benefits the consumer.

The Copyright Amendment Bill is a complex bit of legislation. This is also one instance of the way in which standing committees contribute to creating an informed and participatory process for law-making. The committee received 68 written memoranda from various experts and stakeholders and examined over 25 groups to understand the different perspectives before making its recommendations. Parliament must now debate these issues on the floor of the House to make a reasonable law that balances the conflicting interests.