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The Jayasri saga: Sharing applause, but not profit

  • An analysis of the band’s fans’ concerns and legal quandaries

BY Sumudu Chamara

Some of us grew up listening to songs from the 2000s, and have therefore assigned a sentimental value to many songs that were released in that era. While that period of time is dubbed by some as an era that marked the end (pre-2000) and beginning (post-2010) of two generations of Sri Lankan music, some artists that were in the limelight in that era continue to produce music and perform their old songs, triggering a feeling of nostalgia.

The band Jayasri, which began as a three-member band influenced by reggae, pop, and hip hop music styles, is one such band that came to prominence in the early 2000s with a number of songs that created a fan base for itself. Songs such as Sudu Andumin, Siyumali, Sheela, Adara Lowe, Mod Goviya, and Sundariye became and remain their signature songs.

However, the band is now entangled in a court case over allegations that the band’s income had not been rightfully shared among its original members after the band members split over a decade ago.

Jayasri’s case

The Colombo Commercial High Court, on 17 December, issued an injunction prohibiting two members of the band, i.e. Rohan Jayalath and Rohitha Jayalath, who are also brothers, from performing 20 songs the band had created when the third member, i.e. Aruna Liyanage (stage name Aruna Lian), was also actively engaged in the production of their music including the composing and writing of such.

The case, filed under the Intellectual Property Act No 36 of 2003, had named the two brothers as respondents, and the case was heard by Judge Priyantha Fernando. President’s Counsel (PC) and Government Parliamentarian Dr. Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe and Attorney-at-Law Sandun Senadipathi appeared for the complainant.

Sources close to the case told The Morning that the complainant’s one demand is that he be paid his rightful share of the group’s income generated during the past few years through various commercial uses of the group’s work, including the sale of albums, live performances, and other uses such as granting permission for the group’s songs to be used as ringing tones. 

The share demanded by the complainant is one-third of the income, which is said to have been agreed on, on the basis that all three members of the band must receive an equal share or that all three of them are equal owners of the group’s work. 

Sources explained the background of this incident: “Liyanage is a music director and a composer. He was engaged in music work in Vienna, Austria, when he met one of the brothers. The duo started producing music, and the second brother also joined them later. The trio started the band named Jayasri. 

“The complainant’s concerns revolve mainly around two albums, namely, Mod Goviya and Sundari, for which the complainant has given a significant contribution. Unlike in Sri Lanka, there is a regulatory body in Austria to register such bands, and the songs and the two albums were registered in that country while agreeing to give equal rights to the three members. However, the two brothers, after registration-related work in Austria, came to Sri Lanka, and started performing the songs that were created previously. They acted as if they were the only members of the band Jayasri.”

It is also alleged that during this period, the two brothers had entered into large-scale agreements, even though Liyanage was not paid his share.

Sources further said: “Despite the agreed upon equal rights, Liyanage has not been paid any money (earned through the commercial use of the group’s work). Based on his large contribution, including the creation of 20 songs out of the 30 songs contained in the two said albums, Liyanage is asking for one-third of the income that he is entitled to.”

The case is scheduled to be taken up again tomorrow (31).

Fans’ response

As the news about the above-mentioned legal proceedings, especially the court’s order, went viral on social media platforms, Jayasri fans have expressed mixed opinions. However, the majority of them seemed to be concerned more about whether the versions of Jayasri’s songs they prefer would be available in the future than about these legal disputes.

While some expressed support to the court’s order to ban the performance of some of Jayasri’s songs by the two brothers, some opposed it, expressing a notion that the performers and songs are what define a band and what the people are concerned about, more than the legal rights regarding a band or a song. In this context, this could be named as a case that triggered a mainstream discussion about copyright law in Sri Lanka. They also remarked that the people’s idea of rights to a song or similar work mainly revolves around the performer, as it is the performer who the people identify with the song, and that therefore, the legal situation or the rights are of little concern to them.

Moreover, as soon as the court’s order was pronounced, the immediate reaction of some fans who had commented on the matter on social media platforms was to download the versions of the song performed by the two brothers, before any party took them down from the internet.

At the same time, some fans had also expressed disapproval about disputes over legal rights regarding artistic work causing the collapse of bands.

Intellectual property and the music industry

As the legal proceedings with regard to Jayasri’s work has become an interesting topic of discussion for fans, we also looked into the legal provisions concerning work done jointly by more than one individual, which is most applicable when it comes to music bands.

Speaking to The Morning, international entertainment Attorney-at-Law (AAL) Chanakya Jayadeva explained legal matters pertaining to intellectual property, with a focus on the music industry, and said that a number of factors affect when determining artistes’ (band members’) ownership to a song or an album, depending on their contribution and the contractual agreements the band members have entered into.

He added: “In cases dealing with bands, what happens is that songs are sometimes written by individual members, sometimes by band members together, and the music composition is done by everybody together. Sometimes, one person writes and others add on to it. This is common to both the lyrics and music composition. If somebody writes the lyrics or composes the melody, or does both of them, that person will have the copyright for that work. But, if other people (other members of a group) have also contributed to it (produced music jointly together), then it is recognised as a joint authorship. Joint authorship is recognised under Sri Lanka’s Intellectual Property Act as something that has been done by two or more people, who, in this case, are the authors.”

Sri Lanka’s Intellectual Property Act describes a “work of joint authorship” as “a work to the creation of which two or more authors have contributed, provided the work does not qualify as ‘a collective work’.”

Jayadeva explained: “Therefore, if two or more authors have contributed, the creation of a song, either lyrics or music composition or both, it can be considered a joint authorship, only if the contribution is so intertwined in a way that if you separate it, the lyrics or music, cannot stand on its own. Then, these co-creators generally have equal rights to the contribution, and that is what is recognised by the law. However, if the members of the band had a contract between them about the percentage of ownership for the song, irrespective of the amount of the contribution, the ownership will be decided on that basis.”

With regard to unequal ownership, he pointed out that unequal ownership arrangements by way of contract happen in the international music industry, and that it is common. 

Adding that most countries’ laws also recognise this, Jayadeva said that according to the Sri Lankan law, although different contractual arrangements are not defined with regard to joint authorship, people are free to contract the way they want since they are not expressly barred from doing so. 

He explained: “As seen in the definition, collective work is different from a joint work. A good example for collective work would be a publication such as a newspaper in which several contributions constituting separate and independent work are put together into a copyrightable product. However, the international practice in the music industry recognises songs, if authored by a group of people, as being of joint authorship rather than collective work.”

According to Sri Lanka’s law, “collective work” means “a work created by two or more physical persons at the initiative and under the direction of a physical person or legal entity, with the understanding that it will be disclosed by the latter person or entity under his/her or its own name and that the identity of the contributing physical persons will not be indicated.” 

Jayadeva further said: “In my opinion, any situation where there is a discrepancy where a group of people cannot really identify who wrote what but in their hearts know that all members of a band contributed equally or partially, it will be wise for the bands and artists to settle the dispute between the members, and reasonably share the rights and revenue among them. 

“This is because, as explained in the legal definition, in joint authorship work, in the absence of a contract as to how much one person owns, it is very difficult to prove by way of evidence as to what contribution each person made, given the fact that artistic work cannot be mathematically dissected as to who wrote what, because in the creation process, that is not feasible.”

In response to a question regarding the state of copyright registration in Sri Lanka, he said that copyright registration does not prove authenticity, and that it only gives a date stamp as to the date of registration. 

He explained: “For example, if we assume that there are two persons named X and Y, X can take Y’s unregistered copyright material and register it before Y does, and if Y goes to the court and proves his/her ownership in court, X’s registration becomes nugatory. X will also be liable for copyright theft.”

He stressed that nevertheless, the upside of copyright registration availability in a country is that it works as a deterrent against people who want to steal and violate other people’s copyrighted material because it affords an opportunity for the actual creator to get registration as soon as possible.

The Jayasri case is to be taken up again tomorrow, and the final verdict is still a mystery. However, this is a good example of the fact that commercial aspects have become an integral part of the music industry, even though what fans see is an artistic work. Therefore, although the court order is viewed by some as a development that can have an impact on the band, it is time for fans to understand the importance of every member of a band getting the rightful recognition and benefits for their contribution.

At the same time, Sri Lanka’s music industry also needs to be formalised more, with a focus on the legal aspects of producing music for commercial purposes. Legally binding and clearly defined agreements can save band members time and money and avoid disappointment for fans.