Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Who owns the folk song?

A recent controversy surrounding the use of the popular Sambalpuri song Rangabati in one of the episodes of the TV programme Coke Studio Season 4 served the usual purpose of spicing up the news for a few days. The noise in the media seems to have died down, leaving the parties concerned to sort out the issue.

But there are some areas with a far-reaching impact on the climate of music-making in India that urgently require discussion. In raising some of these points, the intention is not to rake up the Rangabati controversy again. The question is, should a producer, composer or artiste wish to use or adapt existing repertoire, what are the best practices they could observe and what kind of challenges might they face?

Often, artistes and composers conveniently assume that any folk song can be deemed traditional, thereby making it common property that can be used in any manner one wishes to. Sometimes, we fail to remember that folk culture is evolving constantly and a new repertoire is being added to its existing treasures—therefore, not every folk song is in the public domain. Due diligence could be observed, therefore, by making enquiries into whether or not the work being considered for adaptation and re-use is registered with the copyright office or other collecting societies.

Is this information easily accessible? Possibly not, because an initial Net search does not suggest that an online database of registered works is available. This could mean that establishing whether or not a literary or musical work is registered could be a bit like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Possibly, writing to the copyright office or other collecting societies could involve delays that the artiste/producer/composer cannot afford, yet this cannot be an excuse for either neglecting to establish ownership or authorship, or for assuming that it is common property.

It is also true that in some cases, traditional repertoire could belong to a community or collective rather than individuals. Here, the task of attribution and licensing could become even more complex, and there is an urgent need to discuss this.

Let us assume, for the sake of discussion, that a song belonging to the Langa or Manganiyar communities of Rajasthan is to be adapted for a film or album. If this song has been a part of the traditional community repertoire for centuries, how does one obtain a licence to adapt it and give credit? Does one pay the community and, if so, does the community have a common bank account, trust or organization for this? If not, could not every single member of the community demand payment and attribution?

Complex questions of this nature require urgent answers and solutions if a climate conducive to music-making is to be nurtured. If ignored, controversies like Rangabati will just proliferate, perhaps making folk music and traditional repertoire increasingly inaccessible even to users with bona-fide intentions.

Shubha Mudgal tweets at @smudgal and posts on Instagram as shubhamudgal.

Read Shubha’s previous Lounge columns here.

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