3 December 2012

Rwanda: Copyright Suit Pits Artist Against Media

Photo: New Times
A cartoon depicting the Commercial High Court ruling in a case involving traditional music artiste Cécile Kayirebwa, and six radio stations accused of playing her songs illegally.

If you are a radio listener, then you may be familiar with some jingoes that boast of having in stock the best of the latest music on the market.

Unfortunately, less of that music is bought or officially requested from artists who own it.

As radio stations surge in number, managers are aware that music is a key element in keeping in business. Hence the work of cataloguing the best music from the best artists is one of the major daily activities of all radio stations.

Sadly, while radio stations make money from this music, the owners are getting burnt out by numerous small music kiosks littered across Kigali city burning CDs for radio stations, clubs and individual collectors.

As radio stations rightly brag about having all music in stock, including that played by international artists, one would win a bet if any of them owned a single copyright.

Internet enables anyone, anywhere to download songs and videos illegally obtained and posted on the net by music pirates and artists are yet to learn how to deal with this.

In Rwanda, musicians remain poor because their work is not earning as much even though some have become famous as their music gets endless airplay.

But one artist has decided to fight for her rights by doing the unthinkable. She has launched a legal battle against the media including the national broadcaster, ORINFOR.

Cecile Kayirebwa, a famous artist based in Belgium, through her lawyer Safari Kizito of the Bona Fide Law Firm in Kigali, has filed a legal suit against ORINFOR seeking Frw270million in damages for playing her songs both in audio and video version reportedly, without her consent.

According to the lawyer, the suit also includes five other local private radio stations; Radio Voice of Africa, Contact FM, Radio Flash FM, City Radio and Isango Star. They all deny the accusations.

The biggest claim is against ORINFOR from whom the artist is demanding Frw90 million.

Many artists contacted for a comment on this case didn't want to express their sides openly.

"We obviously need to earn from our work, it's all we have yet the media are important in our quest to become famous, it's a difficult case," said a young and upcoming artist.

While many artists know they should be suing radio stations for breach of copyrights, they also fear a backlash of a media blackout.

In 2009, Rwanda passed the law to protect intellectual property. "In 1951, Rwanda ratified the 1886 international convention which addressed intellectual rights and prior to the 2009 law, we had law no-27-1983 which also served the same purpose," said Kizito.

Kizito says in pursuing the rights of his client, he's not worried of a media blackout for her work. "My client is an artist, a professional musician who survives by her works of art, so by the accused to use her work in their own businesses without prior consent is a gross abuse of her ownership rights as provided for under the laws of this country."

Hearing of the case starts on December 14, and Kizito says he believes his client has a strong case.

Several radio stations involved in the suit refused to comment on the matter observing that it was premature to say anything before court pronounced itself on the case.

If the case goes the artists' way, it will be a ground-breaking development that could inspire many to trust in a law whose aim is to protect talent and creative thinking.

Musicians and the media one would think would be partners as they all have the entertainment role to the public even dispute like this.

"We tried to sort this out of court but on several occasions, the respondents didn't take the opportunity and we decided to go the full distance," revealed the lawyer.

While Orinfor admitted in their opening submission that they indeed played the music with the musicians consent, they will be told to produce evidence to that effect.

Regardless of who wins the case, one thing is certain that in future media houses might want to be more careful how they deal with artists. There are several cases for instance, an artist's song used in a commercial advert without their consent, remixing and mixing songs by club DJs being some of the numerous breaches that go unpunished daily.

"We all have a role to promote the law and so far we are thankful to police who have been there to assist whenever approached," said Kizito.

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