On protecting the artist Arts On Sunday
With Al Creighton
Stabroek News
September 23, 2001

Last week we carried a focus on the cinema and its imminent collapse in Guyana. Coincidentally, a researcher from the University of the West Indies was also here last week investigating the Guyanese cinema and video-taping theatre buildings in Georgetown, the East Coast and Berbice. This was perhaps a timely intervention, since it is obvious that these buildings belong to an endangered species. It was alarming how many of them had been converted to other use, simply closed, or had fallen into disrepair. Probably the saddest sight of all was the empty space where, only a month or two ago, the Liberty Cinema used to be. It brought to Guyana some memorable Bombay films such as Kuch Kuch Hota Hai and Hum Apke Houn Koun, and the levelled rubble representing its mortal remains is a sobering symbol of the state of the cinema in Guyana.

This follow-up to the subject was prompted by that journey around the country on the trail of what felt like a faded past, survived by the peculiar style of cinema theatre architecture with its old-world feel that is particularly distinct on the Coast and in Berbice. But it was also prompted by a number of questions which are still arising concerning the issue of protection and of intellectual property rights. Letters still appear in the press bewailing the lack of copyright legislation in Guyana. This is a common misconception here, and this follow-up was also motivated by the need to turn our attention to the protection of art in general.

But first, a brief summary of the plight of the local cinema . One factor which has deterred patrons is the very state of disrepair that was noticed during last week's research tours. This is not only a symptom of neglect or low standards, it also results from the high cost of up-keep and staffing that the cinema operators have to face on diminishing income from the houses. This is itself partly due to the unequal competition coming from TV channels, video rentals and piracy. At one time the audience had to wait a while for new films to 'open' at a cinema house, but Oscar Award winners like The English Patient are screened on local TV in record time these days.

A somewhat tentative agreement between the channels and the cinema meant that the television would hold back those films advertised by the cinemas was observed in the breach and then broke down entirely. Piracy on TV, through video clubs and via recorded cassettes in this country has assumed a certain legitimacy and is institutionalised, thus making it more difficult to oversee the interests of the cinema. There used to be a functioning Cinematographic Authority in Guyana, set up by the Ministry of Information, and it used to police the cinema industry. It seems as if it is now needed to protect it. This authority might well be resurrected since it can now assist in saving the cinema.

How much of the responsibility for this, however, should be left to official action or policy? There are different international agreements, including recent pacts between the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) 1995, and TRIPS (Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights) 1994, which include provisions for the protection of computer programmes and cinema, but there are two important considerations. Article One reminds members of their obligation to enact legislation to facilitate enforcement of the various articles of the agreements. This is yet to be completed in Guyana, and a point stressed by lawyer Bryn Pollard, a copyright expert, is that other countries in the Caribbean have already done it and Guyana can learn from their experience.

The second consideration relates to the erroneous view that protection does not exist in Guyana, and the larger obligation which rests with the individual. Copyright laws are not self-enforcing and one cannot expect the government to prosecute offenders. The aggrieved party must seek legal advice, engage a lawyer and or go to the court if his copyright is infringed. The cinema owners can go this route and test the articles of the agreements and the existing legislation in court.

The same goes for artistic property rights about which there have been several complaints about how difficult it is to get protection. Various types of artistic production, broadcasts and performers are mentioned in the agreements including the Rome Convention (1961), the Universal Copyright Convention, the Berne Convention (1971) and TRIPS. The ancient Guyana Copyright Act (1956) is still there and not entirely useless. Various bilateral agreements on matters of trade and aid between the USA and other countries, such as the famous pact with China, include clauses insisting on copyright protection, and Guyana is party to some of these. WIPO has pointed out that where there are agreements made between countries, the nation with the weaker IPR legislation can benefit from stronger and more up-to-date legislation which exists in the other country.

The authorities have a role in the enactment of legislation to give immediate force to the articles of agreements and again, Pollard insists, Guyana may be fortunate to have the examples of Jamaica, Trinidad and Barbados nearby and accessible for study. A good example is the operation of the Performing Rights Society (PRS) which has its headquarters in England and used to be active in Guyana through a local agent, lawyer or representative. But it now seems to have fallen away. Its task was to monitor the public use of music composed and recorded by local musicians and the publication of artistic products generally. Airplay on the radio is a good example, as is play in discotheques and other public places. The PRS would collect royalties from these places which are kept in a fund from which artistes are paid for the use of their work. While this practice has collapsed in Guyana, Jamaica has set up its own equivalent of the PRS, and a very effective version has been at work in Trinidad. It is these practices that Pollard feels can be informative, and, in addition, he suggests that both video and audio tapes that are imported should be taxed. This would slow down the rampant rate of piracy through illicit copying of recorded music and films and, further, the revenue would go into a fund from which royalties of a kind are paid to artists and from which aggrieved cinema owners may also benefit.

The Guyana government has been involved in the drafting of new copyright laws for quite a few years now and the process seems never complete. But there is no need to wait for this legislation to materialise. The basic structure is there to permit individual action to be taken. First of all, it is easy to, at least legally, stamp a seal of copyright ownership on one's work. This may be achieved by simply affixing the letter "C" encased in a circle followed by the author's name and the year of production. This can be done without any formal registration in any office.

If this right is offended by any party, the copyright owner may initiate litigation. Court cases of this nature, however, are very rare in Guyana. In recent years there was the case of KFC versus Demico House over the use of the description "Kentucky fried chicken". There was also the suit brought by Rudy Grant over the use of his music in an advertisement, but hardly any other action came to notice.

There are several lines of action that the court can take if a case is established, including the confiscation of tapes and various injunctions. However, the litigant has the burden of having to prove that he is the owner of the copyright.