Music Piracy: The Forgotten African Disease

By Kelly Anderson

If you have ever been to Africa, you understand the importance of music to the culture of the people across the continent. Music is a part of every aspect of daily life – from harvesting coffee beans in the morning, to cooking a meal for the village in the afternoon, to worshiping in church on Sundays. And the music resonates in African society in a manner unparalleled by anything you can encounter state-side.

Sadly, musicians in Africa who create the tunes that carry people through the day confront piracy problems that are among the worst globally. In fact, the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI) estimates that legitimate content accounts for less than 10 % of the music market in many African nations. The problem is pervasive due to both poor intellectual property protections and the lack of enforcement of the protections currently in place. IFPI noted that “high piracy and ineffective licensing are the symptoms. The lack of copyright enforcement is the disease, caused by failed civil and criminal legal systems.”

Take the small African country of Malawi, for example, which is a true victim of the music piracy disease in Africa. Thocco Katimb, a musician in Malawi explains that “the main problem here in Malawi is piracy. Honestly, it has been a very tough journey for us, the musicians, because one may come up with a very good album, you will find that it’s almost everywhere in the country and the neighboring countries, but if you look at yourself what you have achieved by doing that, you will find that it’s literally nothing.”

Artists have turned to tirelessly wandering the streets peddling their music because they fear entrusting distribution to third parties would increase the likelihood of leaks or piracy, taking money from their pockets and food from their families. A growing number of musicians, including Thocco Katimb, have begun to sell their music directly to consumers to ensure that those tunes so integral to African life can go straight from the musician’s mouth to the consumer’s ears.

While the Copyright Society of Malawi has threatened to prosecute artists who directly distribute their music without the hologram copyright sticker, as is required under Malawi’s 1989 Copyright Act, the musicians will not be deterred. Many see the direct sale of their music as the only way to ensure the distribution of genuine content.

But selling music on the street is just a temporary band-aid, a stop-gap measure to ensure that consumers are receiving authentic music. What Malawi– and many other developing and emerging creative societies need – are both strong and effective intellectual property protections, which require much more than just a hologram sticker, but efficient enforcement of those laws to ensure the legislation protects the rights of Malawian musicians, and cooperation from all of the companies involved in the online distribution chain. For a country with such musical culture, on a continent whose soul is driven by a soundtrack of its artists, the creators deserve nothing less.

Digital distribution offers an unparalleled opportunity to expand avenues for legitimate consumption of music. But literally the million dollar question is whether this opportunity will be captured, or whether the piracy problem on the Internet will merely add to the woes of Africa’s creative community. If Internet service providers and operators of network platforms are agents of change, then change is nigh. But enless these new distribution channels are able to support African artists, they will be destined to continue operating in the shadows.

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