Controversy
Sony Music has acquired the audio rights of Oscar-winner Resul Pookutty-starrer ‘The Sound Story’, which has soundtracks of the sounds of the Thrissur Pooram.
Panchavadyam/WikimediaCreativeCommons/Challiyan/CCBY-SA2.0

Following a row over parading a partially blind elephant, Kerala’s popular festival Thrissur Pooram has once again courted controversy. This time, the festival's Panchavadhyam Melam or live orchestra, which includes around 200 artistes performing an array of percussion and wind instruments, is at the centre of the storm over copyright infringement.

Several people who recorded the orchestra at the festival and uploaded their videos on social media reportedly received messages of copyright violation from Sony Music, the global music conglomerate. According to reports, it said that the music sounded similar to the tracks of the multilingual movie The Sound Story, which stars Oscar-winning sound designer Resul Pookutty as the central character. Sony Music has acquired the audio rights of The Sound Story. 

Even Facebook lives were reportedly interrupted and stopped midway. A search on Facebook and YouTube threw up only a handful of videos of the orchestra from the public; the rest of the content on these platforms are from media channels.

The issue has sparked a debate on who owns the copyright of the music performed by the ensemble, an iconic orchestra present at almost every traditional festival in Kerala.

The Sound Story, which released in April, revolves around a sound designer who struggles to realise his dream of recording all the sounds of the Thrissur Pooram. It features the Panchavadyam Melam, Panchari Melam and Ilanjithara Melam -- all these melams use the same instruments and have similar sounding rhythm. Resul Pookutty recorded the music at the Thrissur Pooram two years ago and mixed it for the film.

How the issue come to light

On May 10, ARN Media, an online platform that has been covering temple and cultural festivals across the state for eight years, had put up a post saying they would not be able to go live from their Facebook page due to budget and copyright issues.

“Sony (Music) has taken the rights for all melams… When we tried to do Facebook live, it was getting blocked, a situation we faced when we tried going live for Arattupuzha Pooram (in March 2019). We could have gone live on Youtube, but we would not get any ad revenue..." read part of the post, adding that the others also faced a similar problem while going live on social media at the Pooram.

Speaking to TNM, Vinu Mohanan, owner of ARN Media, said that the songs in the movie with sounds of the melams should have been placed under the Creative Commons (CC) license, a public copyright license that enables the free distribution of a copyrighted work.

“Resul Pookutty and team recorded the music and gave it entirely to Sony Music. But these sounds or music should come under Creative Commons license as these are cultural programmes and have been performed for centuries. So, a company cannot claim copyright on it. Let them take copyrights for the other songs they have composed in the film,” he said.

He said that even a two-minute video was flagged for copyright violation, stating that the videos matched the audio owned by Sony Music Entertainment.

He added, “We have never faced this issue before. Other Poorams this year, too, received the copyright notice from Sony Music.”    

Resul Pookutty comes under fire

Several blamed Resul Pookutty for selling the rights of the music to Sony Music, with some even calling the sound director “a jihadi.” 

However, Resul Pookutty has said that these claims are “completely baseless, malicious and false.”

“To put it clearly, I don’t own the copyright or the IPR (Intellectual Property Rights) of the film The Sound Story. It is owned by the producers namely Prasad Prabhakar (Productions) and Palmstone Multimedia. They are the ones who have contractual obligations with Sony Music and Sony Pictures. As far as I know, Sony Pictures has been given the distribution rights of only the film The Sound Story and nothing else. So the fake call of Resul Pookutty sold Pooram is clearly either plain ignorance or based on some agenda,” Resul clarified on Facebook, further calling out those who criticised him.

The sound director also posted a screenshot of an email clarification he received from Sony Music.

Incidentally, when the movie was being helmed, Resul had said that he was recording the music for his personal archive.

Prasad Prabhakar, the director of the film, told The New Indian Express that the tracks were recorded exclusively for the movie and that Sony holds exclusive rights over the sound, which was designed and mixed by Resul. “The copyright issue will only come into play if the content of the album is used partially or fully by third parties on social media without permission from the copyright holder,” Prasad said.

The Sony Music on Friday responded to the issue, saying that they have been receiving complaints about some not being able to upload music from the film. However, the tweet did not contain any mention of Thrissur Pooram.

“We have been receiving complaints from some users that their accounts are getting blocked when they are uploading music from the soundtrack of The Sound Story. We are in discussion with the social media platforms and looking into the reasons for this,” Sony Music South said on Twitter.