Zimbabwe: Royalties Haunt ZBC

The Zimbabwe Music Rights Association (ZIMURA)'s board has indicated that it would sit down to decide on its legal victory against the Zimbabwe Broadcasting Corpo-ration (ZBC) over payment of royalties, as market players mull over the judgement which could have far-reaching implications on music rights.

ZBC lost the legal wrangle over royalties last week against ZIMURA. Justice Bere ordered the State broadcaster to pay outstanding royalties of over $500 000 owed the music rights body for the broadcast of material by local and international songwriters whose intellectual property (songs) are protected at law in Zimbabwe and the world over.

Director of the music rights association, Polisile Ncube, could not be drawn into commenting on the case's outcome, only saying:

"The bottom line is that they lost the case, but we are yet to sit as a board and decide on the way forward. We will call a press conference in due course perhaps by Thursday."

Musicians today, faced with dwindling sales due to rampant piracy, have very limited revenue streams and many may be hanging over the precipice of poverty.

Live shows are quickly becoming the only remaining stream of revenue apart from the royalties they have not been getting from the broadcasting corporation.

However, the fortunes of local music composers are headed for a sea change with the emergence of new radio stations such as ZiFM, owned by journalist-cum-businessman, Supa Mandiwanzira, and Star FM, owned by Zimpapers.

ZIMURA'S court victory is instructive to the new market players as well as mobile networks, as it sets a legal precedent that is hardly likely to be overturned even upon appeal.

Zimbabwe is signatory to many international conventions such as the Berne Convention that bind it to observe and uphold intellectual property rights apart from the home-grown Copyright Act of 1997.

Indeed, the court victory may be a harbinger of better days ahead for the music rights body.

Mobile networks such as Telecel and Econet, with their respective Teletunes and Buddie Beats, now offer composers a green field opportunity to harvest from their hard work as they exploit what is called the mechanical right.

This basically is the right that a composer has to permit the physical distributionof their intellectual property. In this case, the vehicle for the distribution is via the sale of ringtones which are downloadable to mobile phones for a monthly charge of one dollar.

At the expiry of one month, a subscriber can elect to renew the contract. This is the legal route. The mobile networks engaged in the sale of songs as ringtones are at present having individual arrangements with artists to get the necessary licences to use their song catalogues.

This development must pose an opportunity to savvy lawyers who may seek to represent musicians signing agreements to wade into this potentially lucrative market of ringtone sales. One hopes that the local composers are not being blindsided by these corporate players.

Of course, there are those persons with nefarious tendencies who rob musicians and illegally upload stolen song material onto their mobile handsets. That is theft of intellectual property. This area is difficult to police the world over and one hopes that conscientious local music lovers recognise the moral reprehensibleness of denying musicians their potential revenues.

In neighbouring South Africa, almost all the mobile networks sell ringtones to consumers and the business has become a leading revenue stream for artists such as DJ Cleo who snapped an award in the most downloaded ringtone category at last year's SAMAs (South African Music Awards) for his song 'Facebook'.

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