By Andrew W. Mauso
Recently during one evening while still in office, I received a distress call. A hotelier’s computers, sound systems, amplifiers had been confiscated by people claiming to be from Uganda Performing Rights Society (UPRS).
Apparently, the officials from UPRS served the hotelier with a document titled “copyright music license…Assessment form”.
On the said document, the recipient had to pay sh108,000 (for the bar) and sh108,000 (for the garden) including VAT totalling sh254.000, for allegedly playing unlicensed music at the hotel premises.
Presumably, an infringement from the bar area is different from the one in the gardens of the same premises! When the hotelier ignored paying the assessed sums, another document called a “seizure and distrain Order” was produced and the computers, sound systems and amplifiers were bundled onto a waiting van.
On hearing this, I got a mixture of feelings; sad that without his music systems the hotelier was not going to entertain his guests as effectively; as a copyright lawyer, glad that finally enforcement of copyright was shaping up; and curious as to how the sh254.000 that would have been collected by UPRS would be accounted for.
Under the Copyright and Neighbouring Rights Act 2006, the UPRS is a collecting society on behalf of performing artists in Uganda meaning it is a watchdog against copyright infringement.
Under the same Act UPRS also enforces copyrights of performing artists from other countries in Uganda, as long as they have a reciprocal arrangement to enforce copyrights of Ugandan performing artists in their respective jurisdictions. Reproduction of another’s copyrighted work without permission attracts sanction.
It could expose the infringer to legal suits. The only legal way one can reproduce another’s works is by seeking permission or license and paying royalties.
Individuals called Copyright Inspectors (enforcement officers of UPRS) are mandated to enforce copyright on behalf of the performing artists.
Questions, however, arise when it comes to accountability. In the above scenario for instance, what parameters does the UPRS use to come up with a figure like sh254.000?
If the hotelier decides to pay the “assessed sums” so as to get the music equipment, what does UPRS do with that money? Of course UPRS officials will quickly say they hand over the money to the artists.
Also what if the hotelier learned from his experience and requested for a license to play Sam Smith’s ‘stay with me’ at his hotel, how much would be paid? Would that money be transmitted to the performing rights society of the United Kingdom?
Is there a fool-proof system where UPRS transmits this money to artists? How much royalty does one pay to play one song? If a radio station whose audience is bigger plays the same music, how much do they pay? Why these questions?
As a copyright lawyer I represent performing artists. None of them have ever received a penny from UPRS yet the media is awash with news of the latter confiscating infringing material and collecting “fines” on behalf of performing artists.
I also interact with radio stations owners and owners of public places like hotels and bars (the biggest targets of UPRS) and they claim that ‘whenever copyright inspectors get broke’ they go on a prowl to confiscate their equipment! Where then is the accountability?
As it is the UPRS is only accountable to itself. It has the discretion to hand over whatever it feels like to the artists, if it does. Be that as it may, under what law is this money collected? For the record the copyright laws of Uganda do not clothe the UPRS with any authority to charge fines like they purport to do!
Lastly, how many Ugandans let alone artists know about UPRS? How many sensitizations have they conducted to educate Ugandans on copyright law?
How many people know that it is wrong to play copyrighted music in public without a license from the copyright owners? UPRS should not rush to enforce copyright without first sensitizing the public on the existence and advantages of complying with copyright laws.
To do otherwise would be ‘to mount the bicycle from the horns’, like a law professor at school once said. The music and entertainment industry has a lot of potential both for the artists and Uganda as whole. It should therefore not be handled casually.
Performing artists elsewhere eke their living solely on their art and are multimillionaires. An example close to home is Nigeria’s Nollywood that produces more films a year than any other country except India.
In 2006, when the last comprehensive data was collected by UNESCO, Bollywood released 1,091 major feature films, Nollywood 872, and their namesake, America’s Hollywood, trailed with 485.
Motion pictures, sound recording and music production constitute 1.4% of the country’s £307bn GDP, according to figures from the Nigeria Bureau of Statistics.
The powers that be at UPRS should therefore appreciate that they have an immense obligation on their hands and are sitting on a nascent but highly profitable industry.
Getting preoccupied with seemingly extortionist tendencies is failing to focus on the bigger picture.
The writer is a copyright lawyer.
To earn legitimacy, Uganda performing rights soceity should be accountable