It is a dispute that will go down in history, a veritable clash of titans. While the media and general public remain fixated on the duel being fought between India and Pakistan at the International Court of Justice, or the simmering civil-military tensions that are an intrinsic part of the country’s politicsor even the unending war of words between the PML-N and the PTI, all of these conflicts and rivalries pale in comparison with the battle currently being fought between pop star Shehzad Roy and Coca Cola. According to reports in the press, as well as posts on social media, Roy has sent legal notice to Coca Cola for making unauthorised use of his song ‘Laga Reh’ in one of its advertising campaigns. Roy claims that his team was still negotiating the deal and had not finalised anything before the ad campaign was launched, and alleges that Coca Cola has engaged in copyright infringement. Soho Square, the agency managing this particular campaign for Coca Cola, has responded by saying that the deal had indeed been finalised, including details pertaining to the remuneration Roy would receive for the use of his song, and that Roy only withdrew his consent once the advertisement in question had been aired.

The truth of what happened – in terms of whether an agreement had been made – is likely to remain shrouded in mystery for now, although it can be expected that the matter will be resolved if and when it is actually taken to a court of law. Until then, however, the entire episode is interesting because of the light it sheds on two issues that pertain to cultural production in Pakistan today, namely the question of protecting and securing intellectual property rights, and the constraints and opportunities that arise out of corporate sponsorship of the arts. The first of these is what Shehzad Roy specifically refers to in his case against Coca Cola, arguing that what he has experienced is indicative of a flagrant abuse of intellectual property rights, with a massive and powerful multinational corporation riding roughshod over the rights of an artist in its pursuit of profit. Again, the nature of the negotiations between Roy and Coca Cola is unknown, but the charge he levels against the company is one that it is difficult to not be sympathetic towards. In a country where intellectual property rights are routinely violated, and where counterfeiting and piracy are rampant in industries as diverse as software and fashion, it is clear that protective mechanisms need to be put in place to safeguard the interests of those involved in artistic and cultural production. At a time when the digital revolution has already disrupted traditional models of revenue generation for musicians, and in a context where a career in the arts is at any rate often characterised by precarity and uncertainty, it is imperative that those who enrich our lives through the application of their artistic talents be offered the opportunity to earn a decent livelihood. Shehzad Roy may be one of the lucky few whose success insulates them from the vagaries of fate, but he is right to argue that his fight with Coca Cola could have implications for the next generation of musicians and artists.

A thornier problem to unpick, however, is the relationship between cultural production and corporate sponsorship. On the one hand, the very same forces that have contributed to devaluing artistic work in Pakistan – censorship, state-imposed religiosity and hostility, and a relatively underdeveloped market – are what have forced musicians and others to seek corporate money as a means through which to eke out a living. Ever since the heady days of the late 1980s and early 1990s, when the end of the Zia years ushered in an era of artistic efflorescence, corporate sponsorship has been fundamental to the success of pop music , with marketing campaigns and corporate events becoming the primary source of revenue for many in the music industry. It is a deal that has benefitted both sides, with corporations being able to exploit the talents of Pakistan’s musicians to flog their products, and the securing lucrative remuneration packages in return for their efforts. The logical conclusion of all this is plain to see in the contemporary landscape of Pakistan’s cultural production; programmes like Coke Studio represent the major avenues for musical performance and production, and even awards shows and television serials are marked by corporate ownership and sponsorship.

This might all be well and good, except for how Shehzad Roy, in his complaint against Coca Cola, has raised an issue that is often overlooked in this debate. Noting that he had intended his song ‘Laga Reh’ to be a satirical indictment of the political status quo in Pakistan back when it was released in 2008, Roy argued that the way it was used by Coca Cola in its latest advertising campaign divested the song of its message, packaging it as background music to an innocuous story devoid of any political content. This is a valid concern; corporations , at the end of the day, are motivated first and foremost by the need to generate sales and profits, and one of the best ways to do this is by not challenging or questioning the status quo in ways that might prove to be too radical or controversial. Coca Cola could not, for instance, be expected to carry on with business as usual if it used its considerable weight to push for land reform and revolution; such actions would not only antagonise powerful political and economic interests, it would also undermine the very system of capitalist production upon which the corporation depends. Similarly, a beverage company would not stake its sales and reputation on a campaign highlighting the plight of minorities in Pakistan, since doing so would potentially inflame powerful extremists possessing the capacity to hit the company where it would hurt most, namely its profits.

Expecting revolutionary subversion and radical satire from a multinational corporation is ludicrous. Corporate sponsorship might keep the arts alive in Pakistan, but it also cleanses them of their radical content. Some have argued that at a time when Pakistan is grappling with religious extremism and relentless attacks on the freedom of expression, even the limited spaces opened up by corporate intervention in the arts should be welcomed. There is some merit to this argument but it is important to not confuse the means with the ends. Art has always been able to hold up a mirror to society, serving as a powerful means of reflection and critique. Powerful words, images, and music can resonate in a way that a thousand dusty treatises on rights and freedoms cannot. Corporate sponsorship may be a necessary evil, but it cannot be accepted that the diminished forms of cultural production it entails are the best that can be hoped for in Pakistan.