Hallelujah to the song­writer's rights

Leonard Co­hen may not have cared for the loss of a copyright, but in In­dia the rights of lyri­cists are still un­der at­tack

Down to Earth - - COLUMN -

Leonard Co­hen (rip) has faded into the night leav­ing be­hind en­dur­ing songs and in­deli­ble memories of the drug-laced beat­nik era of the 1960s. Some of those num­bers have be­come in­grained in the col­lec­tive mem­ory of gen­er­a­tions who were cap­ti­vated by the lyri­cal charm of the verses spun out by the Cana­dian poet, nov­el­ist and song­writer. His most re­mem­bered num­bers were made iconic over the years by other singers as Co­hen him­self, who started singing in his thir­ties, and was a medi­ocre per­former ini­tially; his bari­tone would take a while to be fine-tuned be­fore he gave us the haunt­ing ren­di­tions of kSuzan­ney and kHal­lelu­jahy among oth­ers.

Suzanne cap­tures the bo­hemian mood of the 1960s won­drously well but its in­ter­est for read­ers of this col­umn lies else­where. Pub­lished as a poem in 1966, it was recorded by singer and so­cial ac­tivist Judy Collins the same year, while Co­hen made it his de­but sin­gle in a 1967 al­bum kSongs of Leonard Co­heny. It is listed as one of the top songs of the 1960s and is one of the most-cov­ered songs in his cat­a­logue. How­ever, in the fol­low­ing decades, Co­hen al­ways pref­aced his per­for­mance of Suzanne with a story that won him tremen­dous ap­plause.

Here is what he would say: “I feel very good about this song. It is a song that peo­ple loved. For­tu­nately, the rights of that were stolen from me…I thought it was per­fectly jus­ti­fied. It would be wrong for me to write this song and get rich from it too. So I’m happy for that friend who put that piece of pa­per in front of me and said: “Sign this”. And I asked: “What is this”? He said: “Just a stan­dard writ­ers’ con­tract”. So I signed it, and it was gone!”

The copyright was taken away not by the usual sus­pects, the record­ing com­pa­nies, but by his ar­ranger who con­vinced Co­hen that it was “nec­es­sary” to tem­po­rar­ily re­lin­quish his rights to the song. The story took an un­ex­pected turn after a con­trite Jeff Chase, who had con­vinced Co­hen to sign, met him in 1984 and of­fered to make amends. Three years later, the copyright re­verted to Co­hen.

Mak­ing money from his other much-loved songs does not ap­pear to have trou­bled Co­hen un­duly. Hallelujah, his sig­na­ture song, turned out to be a block­buster al­though Co­hen’s own ver­sion was not an im­me­di­ate suc­cess. One of the most pop­u­lar cov­ers ever, Hallelujah hit the big time in 1991 after John Cale used it on a Co­hen trib­ute al­bum. This, in turn, in­spired the big­gest hit of them all by Jeff Buck­ley whose al­bum has sold more than five mil­lion copies. All this kept the roy­al­ties rolling in as more than 300 artists re­leased cov­ers of Hallelujah in­clud­ing Bob Dy­lan, Neil Di­a­mond and just about ev­ery­one else.

Copyright bat­tles be­tween song­writ­ers and record la­bels, on the other hand, sel­dom have a happy end­ing. That’s why glob­ally it’s al­ways been a strug­gle for singers and lyri­cists to wrest roy­al­ties from mu­sic gi­ants for their own works. In In­dia, it took the de­ter­mined ef­forts of lyri­cist Javed Akhtar, when he was a nom­i­nated mem­ber of the Ra­jya Sabha, to bring about a change in the law to ben­e­fit per­form­ers. The 2012 amend­ment to the Copyright Act al­lows them to claim roy­alty for their works which were ear­lier cor­nered by pro­duc­ers. The Act de­clares au­thors own­ers of the copyright, which can­not be as­signed to pro­duc­ers.

And yet, pro­duc­ers are still fight­ing over the law’s word­ing. Ar­gu­ing that the amend­ment be­stows an in­de­pen­dent copyright on the pro­ducer of the sound record­ing, they have just won their case in the Supreme Court. Their claim: once the au­thor of a lit­er­ary work or com­poser of mu­si­cal work au­tho­rises a film pro­ducer, or pro­ducer of a sound record­ing of his work, he parts with the copyright. This, sur­pris­ingly, has been up­held by the apex court.

TARIQUE AZIZ / CSE

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