The Delhi High Court, in two writ petitions1 filed by Phonographic Performance Limited (PPL), a registered company dealing with sound recordings and broadcasting, ruled on a long saga between copyright societies and the Registrar of Copyrights ("Registrar"). Copyright societies are legal bodies created under the Copyright Act, 1957 to protect the interests of authors and artists from exploitation by publishers and potential infringers by providing them a better bargaining power to monetize their creative works. Their primary functions include management of royalties and regulation of issuance of licenses on behalf of owners of creative works.
The writs trace their roots to the Copyright (Amendment) Act, 2012 ("Amendment Act") that brought about some changes in the functioning and registration of copyright societies. Pertinently, the Amendment Act mandated all copyright societies to file for re-registration with the Registrar within one year from the commencement of the new law. The writs were a result of PPL being denied registration as a copyright society pursuant to the enactment of the Amendment Act, and Recorded Music Performance Limited (RMPL), in contrast, being accorded such registration for the same class of work, i.e., sound recordings. Pertinently, under the law, only one copyright society can be registered for administering the rights relating to the same class of work.
By way of background, PPL had filed for re-registration as a copyright society in 2013, which was kept pending for eight years. A year later, PPL requested for withdrawal of its application and continued to carry on its business of licensing and managing royalties as a corporate entity. The Registrar, however, rejected PPL's withdrawal application in 2014 reasoning that a unilateral decision cannot be taken by PPL, especially when interests of right holders were involved. PPL then filed for re-registration again in 2018. In the meantime, both the Registrar and PPL had corresponded on several occasions, making it apparent that the Registrar was trying to keep PPL's initial application alive. Three years later, in 2021, the Registrar rejected its 2018 application on the ground that the 2014 application stands as withdrawn, and the 2018 application was time barred. RMPL, however, was granted registration as a copyright society the same year, despite its application being subsequent to PPL's application.
Aggrieved by the arbitrary orders of the Registrar, PPL filed the two writs to quash the 2021 orders. It alleged that the refusal order was unilateral, unreasoned and arbitrary and passed without providing an opportunity of being heard. As per PPL, it had complied with all the statutory timelines prescribed under the new law, including the one year re-filing period. Further, the correspondence between PPL and the Registrar indicated that PPL's application was under consideration and that, in the meantime, it may continue as a copyright society in the interest of the owners of copyright. To depict the arbitrariness of the Registrar's order, PPL pointed that Indian Performing Rights Society (IPRS), another copyright society dealing in music licensing, was granted re-registration under the new law, despite an inquiry pending against it.
While pronouncing its judgement on March 9, 2022, the Single Judge Bench of the Delhi High Court recorded that the impugned order of 2021 was subjectively silent vis-à-vis the correspondence exchanged between PPL and the Registrar, which revealed that PPL's application was kept alive. Further, PPL was not provided any opportunity of being heard, which is contrary to established principles of natural justice. The court was also of the view that, if RMPL's registration was not set-aside, it would prejudice PPL's chances for registration as a copyright society unless the Government considers registering two societies for the same class of work at the same time. As such, the court directed that PPL's 2013 application be revived and considered on merits and, as a corollary, RMPL's registration as a copyright society be set aside.
Aggrieved by the judgement of the Single Judge Bench, RMPL filed an appeal2 before the Division Bench of the Delhi High Court praying that the orders passed by the Single Judge Bench be set aside. The Division Bench, on April 11, 2022, emphasized that, by not conveying acceptance of PPL's registration and keeping it alive, the Registrar contributed to the muddle of the two copyright societies' registration in the same class of work. The court, ultimately, suggested that the best solution now would be a pro tem measure where the Registrar considers the application of PPL for registration afresh, pending the outcome in the appeal. Further, the court partly stayed the judgement passed by the Single Judge Bench to the extent its operation set aside the functioning of RMPL as a copyright society.
As you'd agree, the conundrum of copyright societies continues...
1. Phonographic Performance Limited v. Union of India &Ors. W.P.(C)-IPD 21 /2021 AND 41/2021
2. Recorded Music Performance Limited v.Phonographic Performance Limited &Ors. LPA 243/2022, CAV 77/2022
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