One of my lasting childhood memories was of going to see the late, great P.C. Sorcar Sr (father of the chap who materialized rassogullas for Sai Baba) perform his magic tricks at Mumbai’s Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan. Ask anybody who knows his illusions and he’ll tell you that Sorcar was one of the world’s greatest magicians. Many of the tricks that lesser conjurers now treat as routine (Water of India, for instance) were invented by him.
But here’s the thing. After P.C. Sr finished describing each trick in his traditional flowery Bengali style (“and then the prince found that the princess had been locked in the cage by the evil beast…”), he would drop his voice, add a certain steeliness to his tone and snap “copyright”.
Halfway through the show, he felt compelled to explain this rather commercial intrusion into his world of magic and fantasy. The problem, he said, was that all his tricks had been copied by lesser magicians. And so, he had copyrighted them.
Fair enough. If the old boy had a secret method for sawing a lady in half, then it was his right to protect the trick. But, as a small boy in the audience, I found the sudden commercial touch a little jarring. It seemed to detract from the master’s world of make-believe.
In the 1960s, we did not know what intellectual property rights were and I guess old P.C. was a little ahead of his time. A creative person’s product is an idea and he has every right to ensure that the ownership remains his own.
But copyright and intellectual property are concepts that remain mysteries to most Indians. I only became editor of the Hindustan Times in 1999 because my predecessor had plagiarized an entire article from the (London) Sunday Times and run it under his own name (and photo) in the paper. When he was found out, he argued that once an article was published, it had entered the public domain and hence was available to any enterprising columnist. Oh yeah? said his proprietors and sacked him.
While plagiarism is relatively rare in Indian journalism, the Internet has destroyed all sense of ownership. Each time I am overcome by personal vanity and google myself, I am not surprised to discover that nearly everything I write has, indeed, entered the public domain and found its way to hundreds of sites. There’s nothing I can do. So, as long as I am credited as the author, I just smile and bear it and forget about any royalties.
Nevertheless, old P.C. Sr had a point. It’s one thing for somebody to profit from your work (journalists are used to it, though I suspect that the authors whose books are pirated are less forgiving), and quite another for it to be passed off as somebody else’s.
Years ago, I interviewed music director Anu Malik on TV and asked if he felt no shame at having stolen the tune of Macarena for one of his Hindi songs. Short answer: No, he felt no shame at all. In fact, he said, some of Hindi cinema’s best songs were copies. For example, Chura Liya (by R.D. Burman) was lifted from Donovan’s If It’s Tuesday. And Usha Uthup, who sang the hit Hari Om Hari, told me proudly that when she sang it on stage, she performed it as a medley with One Way Ticket, the English original.
Forget about the songs, even the movies are copied. Parinda was inspired by On the Waterfront, Masoom was Man Woman and Child, Insaaf Ka Tarazu was Lipstick, Manoranjan was Irma La Douce and you can find whole chunks of other movies in Sholay (The Magnificent Seven, The Secret of Santa Vittoria, all of Sergio Leone’s Westerns, etc.).
Of late, however, as the world globalizes, foreigners are getting increasingly agitated by our propensity to borrow. Zee TV’s Jeena Isi Ka Naam Hai is the subject of a lawsuit from the owners of the This Is Your Life format; Barbara Taylor Bradford complained about Sahara’s Karisma; and the provenance of dance show Nach Baliye is mired in controversy.
Like everybody who deals in ideas, I am all for the concept of copyright. But I do accept that some things are hard to quantify. Last year, a famous pop song—Procol Harum’s A Whiter Shade of Pale—was the subject of a suit. Even though the basic melody was openly borrowed by composer Gary Brooker from J.S. Bach, a judge ruled that a band member who improvised on the session now had a claim on the royalties.
As precedents go, this is dangerous. Classical music is easy to note and thus, plagiarism can be spotted. But rock and jazz rely on improvisation. Often a song created in the studio will bear little resemblance to the tune that was originally written. For instance, Jimmy Page added the guitar sound that is the hallmark of the Kinks’ You Really Got Me. Does he deserve a royalty? Bill Wyman says that while Mick Jagger and Keith Richard wrote Jumping Jack Flash, he came up with the distinctive riff that we remember the song by. Wyman reckons that he deserves a royalty. Jagger and Richard say he does not. (Eventually, Wyman left The Rolling Stones over such disputes.)
And what of Indian classical music, which is all about improvisation? The basic ragas are in the public domain, but each virtuoso adds his own twist to them. In many cases, the definitive variations by such masters as Ravi Shankar are copied again and again by lesser musicians. So, does Ravi Shankar own the copyright to his version? Should he get a royalty?
When you first approach the idea of intellectual property, it seems straightforward enough. But the deeper you get, the more complex are the issues. Ideas have few boundaries and few rules.
As P.C. Sorcar discovered, even sawing a woman in half can be a difficult concept to copyright.
Write to Vir Sanghvi at email@example.com.