Abidjan — Piracy is a real threat to artists in the Ivory Coast. Téhé Ella, also known as Ella Mèlèkê, is one of the jewels of Zouglou, a musical genre popular in the West African country. An icon among young Ivorian music lovers, Ella has chosen to leave his country in the hope he can live off his art elsewhere.
"Leaving" is the only thing on Ella's mind. Although his last album sold like hot cakes, with up to 150,000 copies, the young artist did not gain anything from the sales. Ella has dreamed of migrating to Europe ever since, in the hope he can live off his music.
"The financial difficulties in which artists find themselves because of piracy are unspeakable. For the time being, moving to a place where intellectual property rights are respected seems to be the only solution to our problem [...] I've decided to leave, to travel the world and live off my talent," explains Ella.
In Abidjan, pirated copies of Ivorian and international musical pieces are quite popular and are sold on the streets at a very low price. With just 1000 FCFA (15 Euros), one can acquire a compilation of approximately twenty tracks, selected from as many albums. Alternatively, the same amount is enough to purchase a collection of Hollywood blockbuster movies.
Mahamadou Diaby openly sells pirated CDs in the streets of Treichville, one of Abidjan's communes. According to him, law enforcement officers are to blame for the piracy.
"Everyone knows that the pirated CDs come from Togo and enter the country through the Ghanaian border. We are the only visible link in this marketing chain of pirated goods. Artists should blame customs officers instead who are supposed to watch our borders," says an angry Mahamadou.
Ineffective piracy law
Yet, Article 100 of the 1996 law on the protection of intellectual property rights firmly condemns piracy. According the article, offenders face three months to two years of imprisonment without parole as well as a fine of between 100,000 FCFA (152 Euros) and 5,000,000 FCFA (7623 Euros). However, this antipiracy law has proven ineffective in stopping piracy.
"On many occasions, the BURIDA (Ivory Coast Intellectual Property Office) has had some piracy kingpins arrested. But they were never convicted and were simply released," regrets Serges Kouba, a lawyer at BURIDA.
"Over and above the fact that piracy of intellectual property is not punished by the law in practice, it is actually regarded by the judicial authorities as a minor offence and a means to earn a living. These authorities therefore downplay the negative impact of piracy on the wellbeing of artists and other intellectual property owners," explain Serges Kouba.
Lack of professionalism
According to the BURIDA lawyer, piracy is thriving in Ivory Coast because of the lack of professionalism in the music and art industries.
"As you can see, there is no real distribution chain for original musical productions; there is no kiosk, no record shops to supply music lovers. So sellers of pirated CDs are filling the gap," explains Kouba.
Piracy does affect artists alone, but also producers who are increasingly changing professions. Ella has been looking for a producer for almost five years and still can't find one. "Who will produce an artist at a loss? No one," exclaims Ella.
"All it takes to eradicate piracy is political will. The antipiracy laws that have been passed just need to be enforced in order for us to live off our art. But the authorities are not doing anything to help us. Our work is pirated and sold before their very eyes. Piracy is slowly killing us. There is only one option left if we want to survive: moving to Europe," concludes the Zouglou artist.
What is copyright?
Copyright is a form of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship including musical & artistic works and songs. In the music industry, copyright laws allow musicians to protect their creations against illegal use by others, such as piracy or illegal downloading.
In most countries, according to Buma-Sterma and SACEM, copyright organisations defend the interests of their artists and enable them to earn money every time their songs are licensed by broadcasters or sold to the public.
Some African copyright organisations can only protect their artists nationwide because they are not part of international networks like CISAC, BIEM and GESAC, organisations that protect artists all over the world.
"To fight against illegal music downloading, BIEM is actually suing websites that allow internet users to download music (that is copyrighted) for free", says Bas Erlings of the Dutch copyright organisation Buma/Sterma that protects the interest of artists in 114 countries.