Music Copyrights and Cuban Musicians (UPDATED)

An interesting legal case regarding music copyrights is being heard in Cuba.

It seems that Peer Music, owner of many copyrighted songs written by Cuban musicians still on the island, is claiming that the Editora Musica de Cuba (EMC), the “national” music publisher of Cuba, is laying a claim to the songs. Peer, rightfully, is suing for its rights. The EMC claims that Peer illegally copped the rights for a few bucks and a “drink of rum” way back before the glorious revolution.

Sounds like a typical music copyright case in the US with 1950s era R&B singers, right? Absolutely not. The key difference is that in the US, the aggrieved parties had standing to bring the case and, in many cases, prevailed against the big names in the record business (Atlantic Records being one). This case involves a defendant (Cuba) who has obtained EVERYTHING it owns through the nationalization of assets that did not belong to them. In other words: theft.

While I feel badly for the musicians on the island, I hope Peer prevails in the case if only to send the message to the thieving Beast on the island that private property means something to people. Property is not just something for him to take at will.

Latin music case reopens in Cuba
By Stephen Gibbs
BBC News, Havana

A High Court judge hearing a case over vintage Latin music has travelled to Cuba to hear evidence from witnesses.

The elegant marble floors of one of the grandest villas in all of Havana have begun echoing to the footsteps of British lawyers.

Villa Lita, in the heart of the capital’s Vedado district, has been chosen as the setting for an unprecedented legal examination.

The English High Court has come to Havana to hear witnesses in a case which asks who owns the UK publishing rights to some of Cuba’s best-loved songs.

Examining the evidence is Mr Justice Lindsay.

Last May, mid-way through a case in London, the British judge made the decision that justice would be best served if he came to Cuba, after an attempt to hear from several Cuban witnesses via video link failed, due to technical problems.

He is presiding over a case which has been brought by the US-based Peer Music.

In the 1930s, 40s and 50s, in the midst of a vogue for Cuban music in the United States, Peer signed up hundreds of Cuban musicians.

Artist rights

Then, in 1959, came the Cuban revolution, and shortly afterwards the US trade embargo on the island.

When it became impossible to send royalties to Cuba from the United States, Peer says accounts were set up, holding the money for the musicians or their rightful heirs.

By the 1990s, some of their songs had almost been forgotten outside Cuba.

But the release of the Buena Vista Social Club album in 1997, followed by the film of the same name, changed all that.

Millions of people around the world heard for the first time the smooth sounds of Cuban traditional music, and loved what they heard.

Now Cuban music has considerable value. Its ownership is worth fighting over in court.

Peer Music says that its legitimate copyright has been unlawfully taken over by the Cuban state-owned Editora Musica de Cuba (EMC).

Musical veterans

For its part, EMC says that the original pre-revolutionary contracts which Peer signed with poor, uneducated musicians were “unconscionable bargains”, signed for “at most a few pesos and maybe a drink of rum”.

Preparing for the hearings in Havana, Graham Shear, the British solicitor defending EMC, said that his Cuban clients care deeply about the outcome of the case, which they believe is about more than money.

“They see it as about their cultural heritage,” he said

In the coming three days, 12 witnesses, some of whom are elderly musicians, will be cross-examined by barristers from both sides.

The hearing began with the judge’s clerk formally calling on witnesses to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

Quite what the 12 Cuban witnesses will make of the whole procedure is not clear.

The first to take the stand was the 83-year-old composer of the famous hit “Cha Cha Cha.”

Under cross-examination he was asked to recall the details of the various contracts he signed with Peer Music in the 1950s.

If you closed your eyes it was possible, momentarily, to forget that this was all taking place a long way from London.

For the Cuban witnesses, it will no doubt be a novel experience to be cross-examined by a highly-paid British barrister.

But they will not see one of the more esoteric features of English law.

Given the tropical heat, all the lawyers have been given special permission by Mr Justice Lindsay not to wear their traditional outfit of wigs and gowns.

In that spirit he opened the proceedings sporting a cream linen jacket instead of his usual thick robes.

The battle is over copyright to 14 songs, whose composers have all died.

But it is being seen as a test case, which may determine who has the rights, across the world, to thousands of songs.

Story from BBC NEWS:

Published: 2005/09/26 18:50:19 GMT


UPDATE 5:55 PM: Juan Paxety has an excellent take on this BBC article. He comes to pretty much the same conclusion as I do:

It’s tough to tell who’s right and wrong here. Music publishers have certainly cheated plenty of songwriters in the past – and maybe Peer cheated the Cubans. But we know that fidel castro has cheated everyone in Cuba – cheated them out of their freedom and their hopes and dreams. And unfortunately, it would appear that despite the press reports trying to put a human spin on the story, this is a fight between a music publisher and fidel. If you were a songwriter, which one do you think would be most likely to pay your royalties?



3 thoughts on “Music Copyrights and Cuban Musicians (UPDATED)

  1. What really ticks me off is that there is a treasure trove of Cuban artists here in exile, many who came in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s…who are vitrually ignored by the chardonay sipping elitist music industry and music critics. Yet, you get some mediocre castro loyalist singer/musician from communist cuba, and you pair them up with Ry Cooder or some other schmuck and they are suddenly regarded as the pinnacle of cuban music.

    One of Cuba’s greatest musicians/composers of recent times, Rene Touzet, who lived in Miami passed away. He was a dear friend of my family, and all the news headlines would say is that one of his songs was the inspiration for “Louis Louis”, notwithstanding the plethora of fine works in his catalog which is comparable to Lecuona. Yet a mediocre singer like Compay Segundo gets huge headlines in his obit. Makes me ill.

  2. “They see it as about their cultural heritage,” he said [the British solicitor defending the castro regime]

    This is laughable. The communist project has always been to destroy the culture that preceded it.

    Methinks this is about hard cash, which the communist project has never been able to produce.

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