Where does one distinguish between “inspiration” and straight-up plagiarism?

The recent copyright infringement case filed with District & Sessions Court, Kozhikode by Kerala’s leading music band Thaikkudam Bridge is a classical instance of the ‘Idea/Expression’ dichotomy as enunciated by the Berne Convention and national copyright legislations globally.

The Thaikkudam Bridge has alleged that the ‘Varaha Roopam’ song from the hit Kannada movie ‘Kantara’ is a copy of their original song ‘Navarasam’, released in 2015. 

The District & Sessions Court, Kozhikode has ordered an interim injunction on playing the song ‘Varaha Roopam’ in the movie as well as on any music online streaming platform without the band’s permission until the case is finally decided. 

This case has again brought forth a question: Where does one distinguish between “inspiration” and straight-up plagiarism? As covers and remix versions of various popular songs using bits, loops and instrumental portions from original songs is a widespread practice and is uncommon these days. Many times, the original creators do not get their due credit and/or royalty.

The Copyright law does not protect an idea, it only protects the expression of that idea. Therefore, many movies have been made based on similar ideas. The law encourages the creativity of artists, musicians, and writers through their works like songs, books, paintings, dance, drama, etc. For seeking copyright protection you have to prove that your work is an original and creative expression of an idea. And if someone wants to remake a song or use a portion of the song or work there is a license fee they need to pay the right holder and give due credits. 

In this case, Thaikkudam vs. Kantara, the makers of the movie, says that the two songs are similar because of the use of similar ragas in ‘Navarasam’ and ‘Varaha Roopam.’ They claim that there were no copyright violations since only ragas are the same, but the expressions (the music compositions) are different. However, Thaikkudam argues by pointing out similarities in song format, chord, the degree of similarities in the use of musical instruments, etc.

Perhaps the Court also agrees and that’s why the injunction order has been issued by the district and session judge until the case is finally decided. 

The divergence in expressions is even more obscure when it comes to distinguishing novelty in musical compositions for one must draw comparisons on musical notes, lyrics, and overall sounds separately to conclude copyright infringement in each of these components. This is precisely where this case gets even more intriguing. 

Let’s wait and watch the next move as there are reports of negotiations between the parties for settling the issue. However, if the parties decide to proceed with the litigation then this will be an interesting case to watch as this will set a precedent…