The exposition made by the screenwriter Vinod Ranganathan (SRAI) at the AVACI 2023 International Congress, held in the Brazilian city of Río de Janeiro, provided a comprehensive overview of the situation faced by the audiovisual industry in India and highlighted the struggle conducted by audiovisual authors for the recognition of their rights.
A country as rich as India concerning linguistic and cultural diversity that hosts a successful audiovisual industry, deserves to be fully explored. With 20 federal states and 28 official languages, the nation has a wide range of productions in 22 different languages.
“The Indian film industry produces more than 1,300 movies a year; and only around 500 of them are made in Hindi, the official language of the country. Even a movie in Telugu, a regional language, managed to receive an Oscar award to the Best Song in 2023. We are talking about RRR, an internationally renowned film watched by the most diverse audiences in the world. However, the linguistic and cultural complexity is not the only challenge faced by professionals of this sector”, Vinod Ranganathan explained.
The screenwriter sustained that “in Mumbai, a particular style of movies is made in Hindi, while in the South of the country, productions are carried out mainly in four different languages, which amounts to about 300 or 400 movies a year. Moreover, there are productions in Bengali, the Eastern side of the country, near the border with China. Even though New Delhi is the capital of India, movies are not filmed there. In between this rich diversity, the rights of audiovisual authors have been the target of a constant struggle”.
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In 1957, in India, the Congress passed a law which granted authors, composers and writers of songs the rights over their works. Although this law provided protection, many authors were unaware of its existence and only a few famous musicians managed to negotiate their rights individually with production companies.
“The vast majority, around 99%, did not receive royalties. Contracts used to be limited to one single payment or commission since the possibility to demand other type of rights was not known. This situation lasted until 2008 or 2009”, Vinod Ranganathan told.
During the 60’s, the Society of Musician Authors’ Rights (IPRS, Indian Performing Right Society Limited) was created, under the existing authors’ rights law. According to this law, 50% of the royalties generated by the exploitation of a song should go to the publisher, 25% to the author and 25% to the composer.
Nevertheless, as detailed by the screenwriter, “contracts were executed mainly out of necessity and eventually, recording companies obtained excessive control over societies representing lyricists. Finally, authors decided to face this challenging situation, but it would not be an easy task”.
In 2010, regulations ruled that audiovisual authors were entitled to receive royalties for the exploitation of their works. Production companies and other organizations tackled renowned directors for supporting this issue in Parliament, which led to the exclusion of audiovisual authors from the media.
“As the bill made progress, two essential amendments were introduced. The first one stated that if an author did not assign rights to the producer or to the recording company, it was considered illegal. The second one established that royalties were inherent to authors, with two exceptions: the society the author belonged to and his/her legal heirs”, Vinod Ranganathan explained.
In 2013, representatives of the Indian audiovisual community of authors visited Europe and held meetings with different management societies, such as DAMA, to seek for inspiration and knowledge. Upon return, they started to establish their own organizations to fight for their rights in India but they came up against many obstacles and difficulties since legal aid was expensive and limited.
The Indian author told that “the search for committed lawyers became a hard task. Likewise, a critical problem arose regarding the amended law: the recognition of literary rights for screenwriters since scripts were classified as ‘dramatic’ instead of ‘literary’. After debates and discussions, it was possible to state that the historical part of the script was considered literary”.
The power of corporations
Since then, seven years have passed and the process to pass this law – as explained by Vinod Ranganathan - “is being intentionally delayed with insignificant excuses, such as a comma or a punctuation mark. Some terminological changes were made, we were told it would be approved and that the Screenwriters Rights Association of India (SRAI) would be a collective management society. That is why this Congress was going to be held in India”.
The Indian law provides that two months after the approval of a society, it must have the distribution and the figures established. “It is hard for us because we do not have financial support. Even though we have a law that granted us rights nobody in the world has, the corporation is so powerful and the government is with corporations”, the author declared.
The previous government supported authors in their struggle but the situation changed with the new authorities. Currently, the audiovisual industry in India has been dominated by large corporations.
As for Indian authors, it is assessed that there are around 25,000 active screenwriters with an authors’ rights law that provides that rights should last for 60 years after the death of the author, meaning that there are thousands of heirs that might receive royalties.
In total, it is estimated that around 40,000 people might be benefited from such rights. Considering that India has surpassed China as the most populated country in the world, this number represents a large part of the population, especially in a context of high youth unemployment.
Television also plays an important role in the Indian audiovisual industry. With eight channels in Hindi and about ten daily programs in each, a significant number of screenwriters are needed to satisfy the demand.
The Indian statistics calculate that each channel employs approximately between 40-50 screenwriters, which amounts to a total of around 450 screenwriters working on television in Hindi daily. In addition, there are other 500 screenwriters waiting for the chance to be part of the industry.
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“However, many screenwriters face a dilemma: if they deny to execute unfair contracts, they might be easily replaced by others who are willing to accept them. To instruct 25,000 screenwriters about their rights and about the importance of not signing unfair contracts is a significant challenge. Workshops are conducted throughout India to raise awareness about this topic, but the fear of losing their jobs and to face corporations is still an obstacle”, Vinod Ranganathan explained.
Another problem faced by authors is the imposition of non-disclosure agreements (ND) by platforms like Netflix and Amazon.
“Authors have been warned – Ranganathan told – not to sign such agreements since they allow the theft of ideas and have no legal backing, but some authors, due to fear of consequences, continue to enter into these agreements. Producers have also used legal tricks to pressure authors, starting legal proceedings in remote areas where it is expensive and complicated for authors to appear before courts. Despite these challenges, authors’ guilds are even more united in their support and awareness, providing security and support to authors in the struggle for their rights”.
This overview provided by Vinod Ranganathan is a sample that Indian audiovisual authors are dealing with significant challenges concerning the protection of their rights. Even though they have a law that grants unique rights in the world, the lack of knowledge, the lack of legal assistance, the influence of corporations supported by the government and the fear of losing their jobs have hindered their struggle.