In 2014, Carnival is a rights bacchanal
By Jabari Fraser, writing from Port of Spain
If you know anything about Trinidad Carnival, you will know the expression “Carnival is bacchanal”.
As tired as it might sound, every season throws up a new bacchanal or the reincarnated jumbie of a Carnival gone.
There are several copyright issues in this year’s mas’ [masquerade] that have merry-makers a bit anxious.
Rights to works of mas, popular soca melodies, the stream for the Parade of the Bands and the throwing of one of the biggest fetes have all been contentious issues, waiting to bubble over into the streets of Port of Spain come Carnival Tuesday.
Richard Cornwall is chief executive of the Trinidad and Tobago Copyright Organisation (TTCO).
His organisation does not represent the majority of soca and calypso singers, who are members of the Copyright Music Organisation of Trinidad and Tobago (COTT).
Rights and wrongs
The ants’ nest of copyright confusion was disturbed at the end of January, when one of the most anticipated parties for the season, Soaka, was in danger of being called off.
COTT threatened to take legal action against the promoters for not obtaining a licence that covers public performances of its members.
However, the promoters had a TTCO licence.
Feters, who already had their tickets for the event, went into a non-alcoholic frenzy.
In a release, COTT said: “It should be noted that COTT is the only collective management organisation that represents more than 90% of the authors and composers in Trinidad and Tobago. COTT is also the only organisation in Trinidad and Tobago with direct reciprocal agreements with international copyright agencies to collect on behalf of their members.”
Because the promoters and patrons knew the party had to go on, a last-minute COTT licence was secured.
Speaking to Caribbean Intelligence©, Mr Cornwall said: “The promoter made a personal decision to get a licence from COTT, but it was in no way to disprove or lessen the validity of the TTCO licence. It is just a matter of the promoter deciding that he would approach the matter in a very safe way. As far as we are concerned, by law, the promoter was covered by a TTCO licence.”
This is not the only bacchanal that the TTCO has been jamming with this season.
It is threatening legal action against the National Carnival Commission (NCC) for TT$6m (US$933,000) in outstanding royalties that it claims are owed for nearly every costume worn for the Parade of the Bands since 2007.
The NCC Chair, Allison Demas, herself a former CEO of COTT and intimate with copyright matters, did not seem to have any of the feathers on her NCC “Queen of the Band” headpiece ruffled by the threat.
“No, we are absolutely not concerned,” she said.
“This is not the first time that we have been threatened. No action has been taken.”
She was responding to questions from Caribbean Intelligence© after visiting the epicentre of the Carnival: the Queen’s Park Savannah Stage.
She continued: “Our lawyers have responded in the same terms that they did last year. We have asked for further and better particulars. We need to know who are TTCO's members, who they represent, what rights they represent and, to date, no such information has been provided.”
Works of mas’
Mr Cornwall, however, speaking from his office, was quick to produce a three-page list of bands and costume designers whom he says the TTCO represents.
He is arguing that his is the only copyright organisation that covers “works of mas” in the country.
He explained: “The National Carnival Development Foundation (NCDF), who is the body requisite that has engaged the TTCO to represent its members, has indicated that it received royalty payments up to 2007 or thereabouts.
“The exact figure, I’m not in a position to say at this time, but we have written several communications to previous chairmen of the NCC, outlining the TTCO position, and we have always received a position from the NCC that they were prepared to talk.
“However, it has always been, ‘Let’s talk after carnival,’ nothing concrete, always a position of putting off and we see it as a derailment of the process.”
Of selfies and copyright
Mr Cornwall was at the centre of the Carnival costume-related chaos in 2013, when a warning that he sounded left masqueraders scared to tweet and Facebook their colourful costume-flaunting selfies.
He insisted his words at that time were misinterpreted.
“With respect to works of mas, and or images that carry elements of works of mas, we advise individuals that if you take photographs, post them on Facebook, what you do is run the risk that those images can be possibly lifted and form a magazine, brochure or some other element for the purpose of commercialisation,” he explained.
Lee-Ann Forbes, who has modelled some of the masquerade’s sexiest, skimpiest and most-sequinned costumes, told Caribbean Intelligence© of one such example.
“I have done work with quite a number of Carnival bands,” she explained.
“My roommate from the USVI [US Virgin Islands] had shown me something in which a DJ from the said island had used one of my pictures in a costume from one of the Carnival bands that I worked for to promote his website or some party that he was having.
“So I can surely attest to people taking your pictures from social media and using them for whatever other purpose they have.”
Mr Cornwall does not see it as putting restriction on fun.
He told Caribbean Intelligence©: “We are not saying that you can’t post pictures, we are not saying that if you post pictures that trouble will ensue for the person posting.
“Even though someone purchases a costume and that costume is yours and you tend to want to do with it as you please, it is not yours to re-commercialise, because the intellectual property resides with the band leader who created that costume.”
It is this same re-commercialisation that caused part of the problem surrounding the live internet stream of the Parade of the Bands in 2013, when state broadcaster CNMG had the ethernet cable pulled from its online coverage.
After a period of prolonged bidding and uncertain statements about who had won rights to shoot, broadcast via air and stream “The Greatest Show on Earth”, Ms Demas sought to make the new arrangement absolutely clear.
“There are absolutely no difficulties, CNMG has been granted exclusive television rights. The National Carnival Bands Association will be streaming the Parade of the Bands Route via their website. Those matters have been settled.” [Click here for link to NCBA pay-per-view live streaming.]
And the music rights…
The copying rights have also been jumping up in the soca sessions this year.
Over the last decade or so, soca has become known as a genre that casually borrows melodies and lyrics from old hits: jazz, 1980s rock and various alternative music catalogues have all been looted without permission.
One of the most popular ditties, “Big People Party”, performed by Farmer Nappy, shares concepts, lines and pieces of its melody with another “Big People Party”, performed in 2012 by St Lucia’s Teddyson John.
Nappy told the Trinidad Guardian: “Composer Steve Sealy of Ghost Writers approached me with the song.”
After recording it, the popular singer found out more about the smash hit.
“He [Sealy] told me then, ‘You know it already has a Big Party out?’ I was shocked. I then listened to Teddyson’s song and realised the chorus was basically the same melody.”
“Apparently, Teddyson took Ghost Writers’ voice note and wrote a song using the chorus. His song was released on 26 June 2012.
“He never informed them that he took Ghost Writers’ song. The song never scored so nobody ever heard of it. Now that my song is big, some people are trying to raise an ants patch.
“I am not the writer of the song and this matter is in the hands of Ghost Writers’ attorneys. I have already contacted COTT and have submitted my recording.”
So, when you tune into the music, watch the streaming (if you can) and enjoy the pictures from the activities on 3 and 4 March, bear in mind that there’s more mas’ to come, and some of it may well be played out in the courtrooms.
Happy Carnival 2014!
By Jabari Fraser