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Uganda’s New Copyright Law Gives Hope to Artists

by Halimah Abdallah Kisule
Uganda

In Uganda, the widespread burning of counterfeit CDs has robbed musicians of their due. Until August of last year, Uganda used a copyright law inherited from its former British colonial masters. The law was civil in nature and largely unused in litigation, so much so that many people believed that Uganda operated without one.

As a result, individuals and organizations regularly infringed on the rights of artists, oftentimes pirating, duplicating and playing their music with impunity for economic gain. And the impunity continues to this day, one year after the Copy Right and Neighboring Rights Act 2006 was introduced into law.

Artists and other writers have long campaigned for a law that protects their work. Thanks to parliament and the cabinet, who presented the bill, they now have their wish.

Uganda Performing Rights Society (UPRS) manages and administers copyright on behalf of its local members through assignments and by Reciprocal Representation Agreements for its foreign members.

UPRS General Secretary, Mr James Wasula, says that broadcasters, hotels and restaurants and many college graduates who have failed to find jobs have resorted to burning counterfeit CDs for a living. He explains that a survey conducted early this year in 29 trading centers with 443 dealers revealed that dealers earn $10m Ugandan shillings (UGX) per day ($5.93 USD).

Geoffrey Komakech, most popularly known as DJ Languna, is an example of a Ugandan musician whose singing has not made any difference to his bank account, unlike his music superstar counterparts in the western world.

Last year he won the Pearl of Africa Music Award for the northern region with his song Anjulina (or Angel), a love song he modernized from an Acholi folk song. Though he released the song in 2000, it took five years for it to be recognized.

“My first album is still selling. People still ask for Anjulina,” he says.

Ironically, Languna got only $100,000 UGX ($59 USD) even though it took $3.5m UGX ($207.72 USD) to produce. Why?

“I was conned. I did not know how to sell music. [The conman] was in the music industry – he told me he would [make tapes of my music], sell them and then bring me the money. I never saw him again,” he says. “In the UK I got money,” he adds.

Komakech has been invited twice to perform at The Peacock Pub in London. This makes him the first musician from northern Uganda to perform abroad.

Yet his problems are enormous – at one time he struggled with the thieving promoters who appear to be the biggest beneficiaries in the industry. “We have bad promoters. They disappear with our money. They are rich people who buy our music as if they are buying tomatoes,” he says.

The new copyright law portends to protect the likes of Komakech: only those agents who sign contracts with the artists and pay an agreed-upon sum of money to them can then sell those artists’ music to the public. Those who sell music illegally may now find themselves in court, where they might be ordered to pay damages to the artist as well as be required to destroy any illegally obtained music in their possession. In addition, the new law protects the artist 50 years after his/her death.

Unfortunately, the culprits are usually smarter than the courts. Wasula says that they have come together to claim that there is another intermediary body that claims to be working for artists and that as such, they say they are not sure who to pay royalties to.

“This trade adversely affects the music industry. Legitimate music dealers are competing unfavorably with the pirates. Music distributors are unable to pay commensurate remuneration to musicians,” he says.

Matters are made worse by FM radio stations in the country. There are 100 licensed stations in Uganda. The music played on these stations has not been purchased legitimately except at three stations that signed a contract to pay only $750,000 UGX per annum ($445 USD) to UPRS. Wasula explains that in all, broadcasters alone play 1.7 million songs 41 million times per year on these FM stations. If they were to sign contracts it would translate into 1.7 million contracts in just one year, which offers reasonable compensation to the artists.

Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before the new law is truly enforced. Ultimately, it should require that all parties, including promoters, producers and the public abide by it, while giving artists exclusive economic and moral rights to protect their work. Sadly, even Zimbabwe is ahead of Uganda in its ability to enforce its own copyright law.

“The owner of a protected work shall have, in relation to that work, the exclusive right to do or authorize other persons to produce or reproduce distribute, perform in public broadcast…seek relief in connection with distortion, mutilation, or withdraw the work from circulation,” reads a portion of the act.

Pirates will now have to think twice before illegally distributing music because it has dawned on artists to convey messages through their music. And while music with “a message” is not necessarily the most popular style in Uganda today, Joseph Maynja recently won an award for his song, Jamila Analiam, which talks about domestic violence.

Maynja’s success gives Komakech hope that he will make some money from his newly recorded reggae song, We Need Peace, composed to bring attention to the ongoing peace talks in Juba to end the 20 year long Lord Resistant Army rebellion in northern Uganda.

Amidst all these challenges, artists agree the music industry has a future in Uganda.

About the Author

Halimah Abdallah Kisule is a journalist from Northern Uganda. She is married with two children.

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