In the 1970s, as a Parents' Night performance, one of my grade school classmates danced to the song Mai chhori sundari. The song sank into oblivion thereafter, only to resurface last year through a video that featured a nubile model swaying to remixed beats. Struck though I was by the video's technical, artistic and commercial dare, I took it as an example of how musical creativity is all about the promiscuous process of copying, playing with, changing, enhancing and transforming music that's already with us in one form or other.
But Nepal's Appellate Court thought otherwise. Recently, it ruled that tweaking old music is illegal and forbade production, distribution and sale of re-mixed songs. Though old musicians appeared satisfied, it is worth noting that the court's decision is based on a flawed understanding of copyrights and this is unlikely to help develop Nepali music.
A copyright is a legally granted monopoly privilege. Such a privilege is generally considered bad. But what makes copyright an accepted form of monopoly is that its duration is short while its long-term aim is to help the society. To that end, it is packaged to do two things. In this case, it lets musicians assert ownership over their creations for a limited time (a reasonable time-frame would be for about 25 years) so they have the incentives to make money and more music.
But when that time expires, it pushes those creations into the public domain where they belong to everyone. This is how the society maintains access to its own cultural creations as democratically available shared musical experiences. As such, anyone is free to dip into that cultural pool, find old music and use it in any way to create newer, cheaper, daring, unusual and even different forms of art-musical or otherwise. Indeed, this is how a creative process works anywhere-with the new coming up as variations of the old.
By adopting a sledgehammer approach to un-bundle Nepal's copyright laws, all that the court did was stress the ownership part of the copyright equation at the expense of the cultural sharing one. And the consequence is that old songs have now been locked up forever-treated as though they were fossils that are bound to remain unchanged and forgotten in some cultural attic from where they can never come to life through novel means and technologies. Nor can they be used to take advantage of new opportunities to appeal to younger audiences of changing times. What's more, the court has created not a single winner.
The old musicians have lost out in two ways. They see their songs driven out of circulation through competition to make room for new ones. They are further stuck with seeing the rights of their songs decline in value. Who's to buy those rights when the law is against making changes to old songs to reach different markets? Young musicians can no longer experiment with old Nepali music to come up with transformative pieces. Who is to blame them if they now cite non-Nepali sources as having greater influences on their creativity? Meantime, the audience has fewer chances to enjoy and pay for old songs in both classic and in remixed formats.
True, old musicians' concern that those who bring out remixed songs do not pay up is valid. But the way to address that is not to push for a ruling that limits musical choices for everyone. Instead, given the commercial vibrancy of the music industry today, it is worth looking for ways to strengthen old musicians' bargaining positions vis-?-vis new singers and record companies. This way, the old musicians get to file claims for credit and compensation while the audience gets to appreciate creative interpretations of sundari and other old songs.