From whatever angle one looks at it, the Malawian poet is a small figure standing on a bare stage.
This is because, for far too long, poets have been lobbying Copyright Society of Malawi (Cosoma) for recognition when it comes to payment of royalties.
Royalties are one of the things that make creativity exciting and economically empowering.
Under a conducive environment, it opens the floodgates of success and reduces poverty— for a long time the sub-theme to Malawi’s dominant theme of warm-heartedness— to ashes.
After all, it is not enough to make a name in the arts: Those who join the industry must not only acquire a certain greatness, but become richer and happier than those who opened the way. This is the state of affairs that should be applicable to the ideal world of creativity.
Not in Malawi, though.
Instead of the creative industry being exciting and well-paying, it is grisly. Maybe because Malawi just seems to be different.
Take, for instance, the case of poets— those unique human beings who are capable of compressing the world they know and the world they create into stanzas.
One would think that the Nyamalikiti Nthiwatiwas, Joseph Madzedzes, Felix Njonjonjo Katsokas, Robert Chiwambas, Hudson Chamasowas, Sylvester Kalizang’omas and Evelyn Maotchas would be living the fruits of their creativity.
However, theirs is a vindication that, sometimes, justice is blind. Poets who have released albums will tell you that they have fought tooth and nail to prompt Cosoma to protect and safeguard their works, with little success.
Even when the Cosoma stickers were the in-thing for musicians, the poets were left at the mercy of their own devices.
Poets who release albums are left to check piracy by themselves. When Cosoma pays musicians their royalties, poets— who have taken the radio airwaves by storm and are riding on a new wave of popularity— watch from a distance.
They wish they could be the ones showered with such monetary rewards because they deserve to lay their hands on the loot, too.
Ironically, standing in their way are not piracy perpetrators but authority figures who were supposed to protect them.
Instead of promoting justice, and recognising that poets, too, are covered by intellectual property instruments, the copyright authorities behave as if they were a mysterious adult who looms over a hapless child’s world— large and menacing and insensitive.
Add to the dish the problems of piracy and the picture changes from hopeless to ruthless.
This is the ironic situation artists such as poets find themselves in considering that the copyright authorities are armed to the tooth by the laws of the land. They also have a vast fund of experience in planning and carrying out anti-piracy programmes.
Why, despite these advantages, they have been up to their, sometimes, snap judgements nobody knows.
Only progressive thinking can put an end to this fruitless misunderstanding, more so because unity in purpose is the stuff of serious minds.
Two weeks ago, Poetry Association of Malawi President Chisomo Mdalla, a.k.a. Nyamalikiti Nthiwatiwa, cried the loudest when Cosoma paid musicians millions of Kwacha in blank media levy, leaving in the cold poets.
“This is unfair. Poets deserve a share from blank media levy,” he said when it turned out that musicians were the only ones that were going to the bank smiling.
When the government introduced the idea of blank media levy, all arts players smiled from ear to ear, not knowing that others, such as poets, would be short-changed.
After all, there are 14 associations that are Cosoma’s rights holders.
How only musicians get away with all the cakes nobody understands but Cosoma Head of Documentation and Distribution Shadrick Kumtengo said the society was ready to iron out issues with all concerned arts bodies.
Addressing the issue of Poetry Association of Malawi specifically, he said Cosoma had a meeting with the association’s leadership on the cards.
Of course, sometimes the poets put the copyright authorities in dilemma. For instance, when some clueless poets incorporate folktale and village songs in their act, they make their story commonplace, forcing the copyright authorities to face a Hobson’s Choice as they walk the thin line of distinguishing the poet’s original work from stuff owned by the entire nation (the case of folktales, for example).
Yet to us every work of art must have its just rewards.
Then, there is the local theatre industry. It is the self-made guardian of happiness and, sometimes, tears as industry players teach through entertainment. Despite their efforts aimed at making Malawians merry, royalties, like passing clouds, pass them by.
Maybe they suffer from the curse of poetry, long recognised as an art form in its own right but long overlooked when it comes to the paycheck.
But this is a story for another day; for, today, poets cries are louder than the shouts of excitement of musicians that got a share of blank media levy.
Blank media levies and royalties are, by their nature, given to individuals or rights holder associations whose works have been exploited and, in their case, their works need to be reproduced through photocopying, downloads or other forms of reproduction.
If this were the criterion, then all arts players should have been entitled to blank media levies and royalties.
It does not make sense that, for poets, crying for a share of blank media levy and royalties at Cosoma is akin to looking for a needle in a haystack!