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It’s not a laughing matter

Source: Oluwaseyi Bangudu -
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In the 1970s and 80s, he was the most popular comedian in the land. Millions bought his records and thousands flocked to his live performances as he took his rib cracking show across the country. But today, Moses Olaiya, known to one and all as Baba Sala, is flat broke. Forced to retire to his hometown of Ilesha, in Osun State, and surviving into his old age through the kindness of relatives and friends, Mr. Olaiya was ruined by counterfeiters of one of his most expensive films, the 1985 “Mosebolatan.” He could not recover the millions of naira he borrowed to finance the movie, and went bankrupt. Mr. Olaiya's case may be among the better known illustrations of the ruinous effects of copyright infringement, on artists and the larger economy. But he is hardly alone. So pervasive is the pirating of other people's work that the Nigeria Copyright Commission, the government agency charged with protecting intellectual property rights, has very nearly given up on making a dent on the problem. Even seen from the streets, most books, CDs and DVDs in circulation in Nigeria today would appear to be pirated. Even the viability of Nigeria's internationally popular movie industry, known as Nollywood, is threatened by it.

Working for others

Many of Nollywood's best are not spared. The movie director Tunde Kelani, whose most acclaimed works include “Arugba,” says he is having difficulty continuing as a film maker in Nigeria because it is no longer possible to recoup hisinvestment.

“The popular Nollywood industry is under great threat, and may already be experiencing its death throes,” Mr. Kelani announced, rather dramatically, in a statement issued to the press barely two weeks after “Arugba” was released in July 2010.

He urged the federal government to rescue film makers from the stranglehold of piracy. Otherwise, he said, Nollywood, which has already gained international renown risks attaining popular success but becoming a financial failure.

Curious strategy

Some see a bit of advantage in piracy, making up in fame what they lose in financial returns.

“The distribution channels are rudimentary at best now, [and] you get the feeling that the pirates will be your best bet to get the reach you need to build your brand,” said the rising R&B artist, Tunde Leye. “Of course, in doing that, you lose the possibility of making returns on your investment from selling CDs.”

Mr. Leye says he tries other things to improve his position.

“My own strategy is three pronged. One is to employ technology like internet, mobile technology and all such to sell directly to the public. Two is to leverage the brand created and then do an international edition of the same CDs that will be released into markets with more structured distribution. Third is to create alternate streams of income through endorsements, merchandising, events, books and others,” he said.

The cost of piracy

Putting monetary values to the loss from activities of pirates, Akeem Aponmade, technical adviser on enforcement of the commission said owners of rights do not benefit from their efforts due to inappropriate pricing of their products. For example, he said, about 180 million CDs were sold in Nigeria in 2009 at about $182 million, whereas in South Africa, at the same period, only 34 million CDs were sold for about $125 million. In Nigeria, a CD fetched on average only about a dollar, while in South Africa it costs roughly four times as much. He said pirates cannot be left to continue in their illegal business in the name of assisting in job creation or helping people.

“Piracy has led to authors' loss of income, discouraged their creativity, multiplied their poverty index, and reduced the tax that should have gone to the government. We can't boast of a large number of successful artists in a nation of over 150 million people. Something is wrong. If they cannot make good money, how can they pay good taxes?”

Mr. Leye said a long term solution would be to create effective distribution channels that can compete in reach and pricing with the pirates', and make it unprofitable for them to be in business. It will also be necessary to accommodate their structures within the new distribution channel as long as they submit to regulations.

The Pan-African Film Copyright Protection Society, which protects intellectual property rights on the continent, says it is out to make life difficult for copyright violators. “Piracy and all other forms of intellectual property rights infringement are robbing us of the fruit our talents.”