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
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