Copyright and ownership have for long been tough issues in reggae, especially in the Jamaican music industry, since the country didn’t adopt a modern copyright act until 1993. This makes authorship and ownership of compositions unclear, thus hard for reissue labels. Reggaemani has talked to long-time label executive Mike Darby and Ernie B of Ernie B’s Reggae to find out more about the difficulties with ownership and reissues.
About ten years ago the now folded French reissue label Makasound put out the compilation Wanted, a set collecting 16 extremely rare tunes by a number of unknown Jamaican artists. The album was soon withdrawn because of a problem with the licensing. In 2012 it happened again. This time it was the four volume double disc compilation Bass Culture on Nascente. Again licensing was the issue.
When the Jamaican music industry started to take form in the late 50’s and early 60’s the musicians and singers involved in a recording were usually offered a flat fee for their work, which meant that the royalty went straight to the producer’s pockets. At the time most musicians and singers didn’t have any knowledge about copyright and made music and records to put food on the table or for prestige and future opportunities, for example live shows.
This irregular and informal practice has over the years led to numerous disputes about the ownership of music. Veteran artists have for example criticized legendary producer Clement “Coxsone” Dodd for taking advantage of them in their early days and when I interviewed Little Roy three years ago he was frustrated with artists stealing his songs and presenting them as their own. Another widely known story is the dispute between Bob Marley and Lee Perry about the music Lee Perry licensed to Trojan Records in the early 70’s without Bob Marley’s permission.
Difficult to find the owners
There are however lots of different personalities at play here – everyone has their own perspective and history tends to have several different versions depending on who you talk to.
All this obviously makes it hard for a label today who wants to reissue singles or albums.
“Most copyright owners are happy to license their music, especially if the deal is fair to them and the new label honors the music by keeping quality high. The biggest problem is actually tracking down the owners and the original musicians, especially as some of them haven’t been active in the music industry for over 30 years,” says Mike Darby, long-time label executive and currently head of Bristol Archive Records and Reggae Archive Records, and explains the work process to find a title to reissue:
“We approach people we’d like to work with, people with music approach us. We concentrate on working with the musicians if possible.”
Undermining buyer’s confidence
Bogus releases, bootlegs or whatever you want to call them could mean a number of things. It could mean wrong credits, unauthorized remixing and putting extra tracks on an original album. Or to put it simply – an illegitimate, plagiarized, stolen or intentionally falsely described or created product not coming directly nor authorized by the producer or the artist.
“The main problem with bootlegs is that because the market is so small a bootleg can destroy the chance of a properly licensed reissue breaking even, there are many examples where a proper, high quality reissue has been abandoned because the bootleggers did it first. This means the buyers get an inferior product, often over priced and the legitimate label and rights owners get nothing,” explains Mike Darby and continues:
“Another problem with such a reissue is that they undermine buyers’ confidence in the market. A lot of buyers don’t want to purchase bootlegs, but being unsure as to what are and what aren’t properly licensed; they decide to give up buying entirely.”
Suspicion is enough
That sums it up well for me. When I buy a product – whether an album, a pair of jeans or a pair of shoes – I want to know that it’s legit and that the money I spend reaches the owner, creator or producer.
But who’s fault is it? The actual bootlegger or the retailers selling the music? Or those who buy the product? And is it enough to just answer “I didn’t know”, “it’s hard to determine what’s legit” or “Jamaican copyright laws are unclear”?
“We don’t sell illegal products. If there is a legitimate complaint, or even close to a legitimate complaint, we pull the product. We’ve pulled a lot of legit products just to keep things calm with certain producers and artists. We don’t have time to mess with it, nor the desire of course. Running a legit business keeps us busy enough,” explains Ernie B, founder and CEO of Ernie B’s Reggae, the world’s largest distributor of reggae music, and continues:
“Every once in a while someone asks if we will distribute an obviously illegal product. We politely refuse by telling them ‘sorry, we can’t risk the relationships we have with producers, artists and our customers’. We’d like to say ‘We’re not criminals, why are you calling us! ’, but the polite approach is better of course”, says Ernie B, and adds:
“It’s rare to be contacted though. There aren’t any bootlegging issues to speak of that appear to be affecting us, other than the occasional communication with someone that has suspicions about certain products we have and even then it’s usually easy to set the record straight. Once in a while we get stuck with a little product that might be an unauthorized release, but it’s easy to pull the product and be done with it. We err on the side of caution in order to keep things running smoothly and to keep relationships strong.”
Hard to quantify the damage
For the past ten years or so music sales have decreased almost on a annual basis and the shift from physical products – CD and vinyl – to digital platforms have increased. In 2012, for example, digital albums went up 14 percent and CD declined 13 percent, according to U.S. statistics from Nielsen SoundScan and Nielsen BDS.
“According to my research CD sales across all genres are down about 90 percent from their peak. I’d say the same has happened to illegal copies. Certainly the market would be a better place without them, but it’s hard to quantify how much damage is being done now,” believes Ernie B.
However, Mike Darby is not so sure that ill-licensed products have declined.
“I’m not sure, it may well have increased, if so it might be because the sales are so low now that the entire run can be sold within a few weeks and the chances of rights owners taking expensive legal action are very small, also especially for music from the 1960’s a lot of the artists and producers are dead leaving the ownership unclear. This is often exploited by bootleggers,” believes Mike Darby, and adds:
“There are also cases where bootleggers may tell some people they have licensed tracks from the artist whilst telling others they have licensed them from the producer causing enough doubt and confusion that they can get away with their activities.”
How to avoid bootlegs
As a consumer it can be hard to tell if it’s an illegitimate product or not, especially if you buy from Ebay or an Internet retailer. And it gets even harder if no cover sleeve or sound samples are provided.
“The best way to stop bootlegging is for consumers who care about the artists who created the music they love to stop buying bootlegs, retailers should also play their part and not stock obvious bootlegs,” explains Mike Darby, and continues:
“Sometimes it is difficult to be sure what is and what isn’t a legitimate properly licensed release, but generally bootlegs are quite obvious with low quality, from a limited number of sources, often very limited and expensive. The labels may have no connection with the original release and there is no proper contact information on the labels or sleeves and a mystery as to who is behind them. Blank labels are also often used and writing credits may also be missing.”
Ernie B also suggests consumers to simply avoid the obviously illegal copies and perhaps letting the producer know if you see any of their music sold in this manner. But he also wants to see a new legislation.
“Right now the law has no teeth and in fact the law doesn’t care unless it’s a massive operation. If they stiffened the penalties and beefed up enforcement, then certainly the problem would be reduced.”