Friday 31 May 2013

Lyrical re-write is a cacophony to the ears of a Chinese songwriter

China is focussing on the rights of songwriters after an act on the celebrity reality show I Am A Singer,  broadcast Hunan Satellite TV in January, moved many of the audience to tears with their performance of Mum in the Candlelight. But the singing duo of Chen Yufan and Hu Haiquan had made numerous changes to the song's lyrics and now the original lyricist, Li Chunli, is seeking legal redress againt  Hunan TV and the performing duo, asking for a public apology and 200,000 yuan ($32,659) according to China Daily. Gu Jianfen, who composed the music for Li's words in the original version, has also been in talks with the Hunan, andChina Daily reported that Li told Guangming Online that "I lost my song". In response, the duo defended themselves saying "it should be the program's producers that come out to deal with it" saying that their contract with Hunan protected them.

Li's view was more forthright saying "Changing a song without any prior notice is the greatest disrespect to composers and lyricists. It's like your own kids are grabbed by others for a facelift and then their real mom is made unknown to the public." Li wrote the song at the age of 17 for her mother, who had been ill for a long time, and when her mother passed away three years ago, Li played the song as a goodbye at the funeral. Now each year she sings it to her mother on the Tomb-Sweeping Day and Li said of the song "It is of great importance to me," she said. "Its creation embodies my own experience and feelings."

Lu Junjie, an attorney representing Li, said that the contract between Hunan TV and the Music Copyright Society of China makes it clear that the song must be used in its original form and added that any change must be subject to agreement by copyright owners, Lu said. Ge Xiaoying, composer Gu's attorney, said "it is quite clear that this is an infringement" and it seems that Hunan Satellite TV has apologized, it has not been "active, complete and timely" in dealing with the issue, he said. Lyricist Li added that with copyright, "The awareness is terrible," said the songwriter now in her seventies. "I stand out to fight infringement because I don't want young musicians to lose hope."

It all reminds me a bit of Gilbert O'Sullivan's ultimately successful action against Biz Markie after Markie sampled a substantial portion of O'Sullivan's 1972 song Alone Again (Naturally) in his song Alone Again  In Grand Upright Music, Ltd v. Warner Bros. Records Inc., 780 F.Supp. 182 (S.D.N.Y. 1991), Judge Kevin Thomas Duffy granted an injunction against the defendant, Warner Bros. Records, to block the use of the unauthorised sample – O’Sullivan had actually been asked and refused permission to use part of what was clearly a very personal song (although O'Sullivan has denied it is autobiographical) and the court said "it is clear that the defendants knew that they were violating the plaintiff's rights as well as the rights of others. Their only aim was to sell thousands upon thousands of records. This callous disregard for the law and for the rights of others requires not only the preliminary injunction sought by the plaintiff but also sterner measures." Judge Duffy opened his findings with "Thou shall not steal", and proceeded to clarify that samples needed to be cleared and  referred the case to the District Attorney for criminal prosecution (although this never happened). I do wonder what the Undertones and Blondie thought of One Direction's recent "mash up". As an old punk it quite ruined my day.

Also in China, the country’s  copyright authorities have voiced support for Yang Jiang, a centenarian who urged a halt to an upcoming auction involving private missives written between her and her late husband, Qian Zhongshu, a renowned Chinese literary scholar. Yu Cike, a senior official with the National Copyright Administration, said "Auctioning Qian's private letters may lead to the infringement of the rights of property, authorship, privacy and reputation... We support the copyright owner to protect her rights in accordance with law and will keep tracking the event".  The auction was announced by Beijing-based auction company Sungari and involves 110 letters and manuscripts written in the 1980s by Qian, his wife Yang Jiang and their late daughter Qian Yuan.

With the auction scheduled for late June, the plan triggered vehement protest from Yang Jiang, now 102 and herself a literary scholar, who said she was "hurt and shocked" by the publicity and potential trade of the "most intimate personal communications" as “commodities”. Yu Cike added that there was a threat of legal action and "Those composing the missives are their copyright owners, and auction groups should not make any copyright-related use of such missives without the consent of copyright owners" adding that publicising the letters' contents might result in copyright infringement. However other Chinese commentators pointed out that "the physical ownership of the letters was quite separate from copyright issues".

For a very quick and neat synopsis  of the US position on music sampling, New York attorney Mita Carriman (Carriman Law Croup) has written a piece here

And back in August 2011 Jeremy blogged a fascinating piece on copyright in old manuscripts and letters on the 1709 blog here and the appellate court decision in the 1987 US case of  Salinger v Random House is a useful read too.

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