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President’s Capital City relocation bears no fruits for artists

The hastily made news, announced with no thought beyond the political capital it might bring, sailed with a fair wind. Little surprise, then, that the political decision went straight into the arms of public favour.

The late Bingu wa Mutharika— who bore the news of the President’s relocation from Blantyre’s Sanjika Palace to the New State House in Lilongwe— was driven to Malawi’s Capital City heavily laden with an unexpected cargo of public glory.

It can be said that, when it [relocation] happened— after Bingu’s electoral victory in 2004— the hope was that it would take very little fire to change the face of Lilongwe, as well as make a great deal of money for Lilongwe and Central Region-based artists.

Today, though, the story is not heavily-laden with glory. As the truth sinks in, musicians and visual artists have quickly realised that being closer to the Head of State and Government is not the real glory; being able to fend for themselves is.

Counting relocation eggs

“Of course, we had high hopes when the Head of State [and Government] decided to relocate [from Blantyre] to Lilongwe but, years down the line, there is nothing we can point at as benefits attributed to such a move. At least for us, visual artists,” says George Mkumbulu, Visual Arts Association of Malawi (Vaam) Central Region chairperson.

Mkumbulu observes that, instead of opening a window of opportunities, it has been the other way round.

Things go by contraries in Malawi, he observes.

Mkumbulu observes that there has been no marked changes in terms of trade volumes, despite the hope created by the former president’s decision to establish his base in Lilongwe— and, by extension, the Central Region.

“If there were any changes in [terms of] demand for our products, you would have seen us working in groups to meet such demand. But this is not the case because we [artists] still sell our creative works as individuals. We rely on our individual galleries to sell our creative products,” observes Mkumbulu.

However, that is not the only example in the bag of the Central Region chairperson. He observes that, had their financial muscle improved, Central Region Vaam members would have been able to mobilise their own resources and establish an office.

But, due to continued challenges on the market, it would be a far-fetched dream to embark on such a project.

“So, we do not even have a [Vaam] secretariat here in the Central Region. That tells you something; that things have not changed for the better. We are still struggling, visual artists fighting for survival.

“Maybe it would have been another thing— I mean, a positive story— if the government managed to construct at least a national gallery, where we, artists, would be able to showcase our creative products. A gallery that would serve as a meeting point for artists – as creators – and local buyers and tourists. But we do not even have a national gallery and we struggle to sell our products,” bemoans Mkumbulu.

Like Vaam like Musicians Union of Malawi (Mum), it can be said.

Mum Central Region chairperson, Farai Chazima Soko, does not have a different story to tell.

“We were hoping that the doors [of economic] opportunities would open up for us but this has not been the case. I can say without doubt that we have not benefitted, financially, from the fact that the President lives here [in the Central Region]. You would expect that maybe some of our members would get opportunities to perform [at state functions, for example] or that music sales would increase due to the increased number of buyers but this has not happened. There is no difference between the pre-relocation and the post-relocation eras,” says Chazima Soko.

She says the situation can be equated to a child who describes themselves as orphaned, despite having both parents.

“Instead [of benefitting], we have seen piracy go on the rise, we have seen pirates get away with penalties and sentences that are light and our song continues to be that of encountering challenges and problems,” says Chazima Soko.

And, unlike visual artists— who are able to sell their products on their own— the Central Region Mum chairperson observes that the musician faces another type of challenge.

“We are denied the opportunity to sell our products by ourselves. Musicians who want to sell their own music are told that stickers – which help determine how much, in royalties, an individual gets in monetary terms— are sold to only those who are licenced. As it were, not every musician is licenced and this means pirates continue to benefit more than the artist,” she says.

Turning point?

However, the Central Region visual artist and musician are united in the hope that their areas of specialisation are about to reach the point of full flower.

They say, following the tabling of the Copyright Bill in Parliament, portents of trouble are obvious for pirates, and the issue of poor financial returns may be a thing of the past.

The last meeting of Parliament passed the Copyright Bill of 2016, which repealed the Copyright Act (Cap. 49:03) enacted in 1989. The new Act incorporates recent developments that have emerged since the Copyright Act came into force.

The Ministry of Justice and Constitutional Affairs indicated, among other things, that, “At the time of enactment of the current Act, Malawi was a Party to the Berne Convention but there have been new developments since then. These developments include the adoption and entry into force of the Agreement on Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Trips), the World Copyright Treaty and the WIPO [World Intellectual Property Organisation] Performances and Phonograms Treaty. These Conventions, particularly the Trips Agreement, set down new minimum standards for the protection of Intellectual Property Rights”.

Among other things, the Bill establishes the Copyright Society of Malawi, which will oversee the implementation of the Bill.

It also provides for copyright matters which, among other things, offers an author of any work exclusive property rights in their work against all persons. It also provides that written laws and decisions of courts, news communicated to the public by any means and reports of commissions appointed by the government shall not be subject to copyright protection.

“This part provides for economic rights of authors which entail that an author of a work eligible for copyright shall have the exclusive right to reproduce the work, distribute, display and communicate the work to the public. In addition to economic rights, the Bill provides for moral rights and it provides that an author of any work eligible for copyright shall have an exclusive right to claim authorship of his work and to object to any distortion, mutilation or modification of his work where such act would be prejudicial to his honour or reputation,” reads part of the Bill.

It also sets out permitted free uses of a work. For example, it stipulates that “works may be used without the consent of the author and without the obligation to pay remuneration for the use of such work in certain specified circumstances”.

In the same vein, copyright may be transferred by assignment, testamentary disposition or by the operation of the law. However, it stipulates that an assignment has to be in writing and signed by the owner, as well as that authorisation by the owner of copyright for the use of a work may be granted under a contract in writing.

Broadcasters have not been left untouched as Part VI of the Bill provides for licences in copyright.

It reads: “A broadcasting organisation is authorised, by agreement with the Society, to broadcast literary, musical or artistic works and may also broadcast works of authors whom the Society does not represent. An institution responsible for arranging public examinations may reproduce works that have already been made available to the public subject to conditions.

“The Part further makes provision with respect to compulsory translation licences, translation licences for broadcasting purposes and compulsory reproduction licences. In addition, this Part also relates to production of recording of musical works. A manufacturer of sound recordings is allowed to make a sound recording of any musical work if copies of a sound recording have previously been made in Malawi for purpose of retail sale and were so made with the licence of the owner of the copyright.”

With such provisions, Chazima Soko and Mkumbulu cannot be faulted for being full of optimism.

Chazima Soko says, for instance, that there is reason to rejoice because enactment of the Copyright Bill means the arts will no longer be treated as soft-handed conceits!

“With the bill, we anticipate positive change. It is like we have a parent and [are no longer orphans]. We have waited for a long time for this. The good thing about the bill is that it will benefit all artists, without regard to location,” says Chazima Soko.

She also hopes that their long-held wish to meet President Peter Mutharika may bear fruit. She says Mum president, Reverend Chimwemwe Mhango, has been running up and down, knocking on the relevant ministry’s door for that chance to meet the president.

However, while acknowledging that the Copyright Bill marks a new chapter in Malawi’s modern history, Mkumbulu observes that “the National Cultural Policy is the big deal”.

He explains: “I think the Cultural Policy is the best tool to bank on. I believe that we have room for the construction of a national gallery and that may go a long way in promoting our culture. In this regard, the [Copyright] Bill may just act as a safeguard— protecting us, artists, and ensuring that we do not get exploited. So, I am banking on the Policy,” says Mkumbulu.

Well, the era before the amended Copyright Bill and the new Cultural Policy might have been a time of ignorance, sometimes of exploitation. After all, poor financial returns and piracy ravaged the artist’s pocket, drowning long-held hopes.

But the amended Copyright Bill and the new Cultural Policy impose order upon the scene full of devastated artists, for once uniting the artist with peace of mind. It could be too early to say whether the peace of mind will attract the money!

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