Ethiopia: Copyrights and CopyCrimes
By Alemayehu G. Mariam / January 23, 2012
Crimes Against the Mind
If a person were to maliciously burn or vandalize another’s house, it would be regarded as a serious property crime under the laws of any nation. If one were to walk into a bookstore and steal thousands of books and give them away to any passerby, that would also be a major property crime. How about taking a copyrighted book, scanning it and making it available to anyone in digital form online? Is that a serious criminal act? Is it also an immoral and depraved act?
Is it fair?
When a publisher, author or artist produces a book, a piece of music, a painting or other similar work, s/he is creating intellectual property which is as valuable as any other kind of property recognized by law. Just as doctors, lawyers, engineers and others make a living by practicing their professions, those in the literary, artistic and publishing communities make their living from marketing their intellectual creations. But the total disrespect and contempt shown by some individuals to the intellectual property rights of Ethiopian musicians, artists and authors is downright sickening and maddening.
Today, the music of the legendary Ethiopian artists, including Tilahun Gessesse, Mahmoud Ahmed, Bizunesh Bekele, Alemayehu Eshete, Kiros Alemayehu, Kassa Tessema, Ketema Makonnen, Asnaketch Worku, Mary Armede, Hirut Bekele, Ali Birra, Aster Aweke, Kuku Sebsebie, Muluken Melesse, Teodros “Teddy Afro” Kassahun, Shambel Belayneh and so many others, are illegally and casually stored online and made freely available. The artists receive no payments and their work is distributed without their permission and often to the financial benefit (selling ads on websites, subscriptions, etc.) of the music pirates. The individuals who store the music illegally and those who download them illegally work together to not only impoverish these great artists but also destroy their creative potential and ability to enrich the culture.
Crimes Against the Press
This contemptible culture of online piracy passed another shameful milestone recently when an entire book was scanned and posted on the internet in clear violation of international and national copyright laws. The book in question was the recently published memoir of former Ethiopian junta leader Mengistu Hailemariam. The website that scanned and posted the book online justified its action as follows:
Mass murderer and brutal dictator Mengsitu Haile Mariam (exiled in Harare, Zimbabwe) has written a 500+ pages book that has been published by Tsehai Publisher of Los Angeles. This mass murderer has not yet atoned or paid for his horrendous crimes and the mass killings of the Red Terror. He now hopes to benefit from the sale of his book of lies. We strongly feel that this criminal should be tried before a court of law and should be hindered from benefitting from his crime. Thus, we have published the book in PDF and we are posting it for free usage of all interested readers.
The website operators defended their illegal copying and posting by claiming that they had a right to do so under American law:
Our action is protected by Son of Sam Law in the USA which prohibits criminals from profiting from their crimes by selling their stories to publishers. Accessories to such actions are also included in the prohibition and in certain cases the law can be extended beyond the criminal to include friends, neighbors and family members of the lawbreaker. Denying the holocaust is a crime in many countries and Mengistu denies firmly the Red Terror and the mass murders. Concerned Ethiopians are studying the possibility of a law suit against Mengistu and his LA based publisher who may also be a target of boycott by all Ethiopians. Assisting and helping mass murderers to profit from their crimes by publishing their book of lies is a crime by itself.
The illegal posting is allegedly motivated by the desire to prevent Mengistu from getting a “benefit from the sale of his book”, despite the fact that posting the digital copy of the book will give wider dissemination of what they described as a “book of lies”. Ironically, by posting the book online for all to read, the copyright infringers more likely gave great credibility to Mengistu’s claims about them than actually discrediting him. But the real target of the vengeance is the publisher, Tsehai Publishers, and not Mengistu. The copyright violators’ twisted message is simple: If they do not like the message of an author, they will retaliate by scanning and posting the author’s book online and bankrupt the publisher.
One can disagree deeply with Mengistu and the facts or lies contained in his memoir. Having read the book, I am critical of the accuracy and selective recollection of many of his “facts”; and disagree with his attempt to avoid personal and regime accountability for his gross violations of human rights. But that is the way of all dictators. They always try to tell their stories in heroic terms and attempt to justify their crimes as patriotic acts. Although I disagree with Mengistu on numerous “facts” and unreservedly condemn his human rights record, I will be the first one to stand up and defend his right to write a book and publish it, even if it is all lies. To be sure, I defend Mengistu’s right to express himself just as vigorously as I defended the free speech rights of his successor Meles Zenawi when he spoke at Columbia University in September 2010. Why shouldn’t these two dictators be allowed to express themselves? Who is afraid of their “facts”, “lies”, ideas or opinions? Don’t the people have the right to hear these dictators and make their own judgment?
Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights provides: “Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.” “Everyone” includes dictators and human rights violators. It is the moral duty of those of us who are committed to freedom, democracy and human rights to expose the lies, fabrications and brutality of dictators at every opportunity. By suppressing the views of the dictators, we not only undermine our own moral legitimacy against their lies but also prove to the world that we are indeed their clones. “If we don't believe in freedom of expression for people we despise, we don't believe in it at all.”
Those who posted Mengistu’s book online are absolutely wrong on the law. The so-called “Son of Sam Law” they tout as authority for posting the book online was adopted in the State of New York in 1983 to prevent convicted criminals from selling their stories to publishers and profiting from the notoriety of their crimes. That law was declared unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991. New York adopted a narrowly tailored law in 2001 requiring, among other things, victim notification whenever a person convicted of a crime receives a certain amount of money. A similar law in California was struck down by that state’s highest court in 2002. Under federal law (18 U.S.C. § 3681 (2000) [Special Forfeiture of Collateral Profits of Crime]), the U.S. attorney may seek a federal court order authorizing “forfeiture of all or any part of proceeds from a contract relating to a depiction of such crime in a movie, book, newspaper, magazine, radio or television production…” There is no law in the United States that gives private parties the right to become “Special Prosecutors” to catch “mass murderers” who “profit from their crimes by publishing their book of lies” online, or violate the copyright of publishers in the name of preventing “mass murderers” from profiting. As a matter of law, no state or federal court has personal jurisdiction over Mengistu to deprive him of any “profits” he may get from the sale of the book. Even if such jurisdiction could be had, Mengistu would still be entitled to full due process of law before any court orders denial of proceeds from the sale of his book. Yes, dictators are also entitled to full due process before there are deprived of life, liberty and property.
Crimes Against Copyright Laws
The illegal posting of Mengistu’s memoir is not about lies, truths or criminals profiting from their crimes. It is about criminal infringement of copyrights. Since 1886, the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works “Berne Convention”, see Art. 2) has been in place to protect literary and artistic works. Under 17 U.S.C. §506 (a )(1 )(B), “Any person who willfully infringes a copyright shall be punished as provided under section 2319 of title 18, if the infringement was committed… (B) by the reproduction or distribution, including by electronic means, during any 180–day period, of 1 or more copies or phonorecords of 1 or more copyrighted works, which have a total retail value of more than $1,000.”
The whole idea in copyright law is to give the creator of an original work exclusive intellectual property rights for a specified amount of time, which in the U.S. is the lifetime of the author plus 70 years. During this period, the owner of a copyright has the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, perform, display, license, and prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted work. Under the “fair use” rule, others may make limited use of the material for critical reviews of a work or for news reporting, teaching, scholarship, or research.
Crimes Against Culture
I suspect there may be some who are not familiar with Tsehai Publishers and the young man who has toiled so hard for so many years to create a publishing outlet to Ethiopian, African and other academics dedicated to scholarship on Ethiopia and the continent in general. Elias Wondimu started Tsehai Publishers in 1998. His aim was to create an institution that will “provide a venue for writers whose works may otherwise go unpublished.” Through these efforts, Elias hopes to achieve our goals of fostering intercultural dialogue and social justice.
Among the dozens of original scholarship and reprints of some classic works on Ethiopian and African history, politics, anthropology, sociology, economics, religion and culture include: Tradition & Change in Ethiopia (2010), Feudalism and Modernization in Ethiopia (2006), Wit and Wisdom of Ethiopia (1999), Enough with Famines in Ethiopia (2006), The Survival of Ethiopian Independence (2004), A Political History of the Tigray People’s Liberation Front (2010), A History of the Beta Israel (Falasha) (2010), Protestant & Catholic Missions in Orthodox Ethiopia (2007), Life and Culture in the Townships of Cape Town (2007), AIDS Orphans and their Grandparents (2006), Wax and Gold (2005), Civil Wars and Revolution in the Sudan (2005), Ethiopia in Wartime (2004). A complete list is available here.
In 2004, Tsehai Publishers established The International Journal of Ethiopian Studies (IJES), currently available on JSTOR, the international online system for archiving academic journals. A number of Ethiopian academics and scholars including myself and professors Maimire Mennasemay, Worku Negash and Alula Pankhurst have served as senior editors. IJES is an interdisciplinary, refereed journal which is published twice a year and dedicated to scholarly research relevant to or informed by the Ethiopian experience. IJES publishes articles in English and Amharic. The Journal’s mission statement explains that
IJES will, for the first time, provide Ethiopian scholars with an Ethiopian venue for reflecting seriously on Ethiopian issues from a scholarly perspective… One of the deepest obstacles to African (including Ethiopian) progress towards democracy and economic prosperity is the peculiar situation of Africans being reduced to an object of knowledge by contemporary social science. The absence of Africans, including Ethiopians, as self-examining, self-evaluating, self-defining, and self-propelling subjects of history [has resulted in our] total dependence on external (European and American) definitions, interpretations, explanations, evaluations of who we are and what our problems and their solutions are.”
Tsehai Publishers has also organized a number of number of national conferences covering a wide range of issues and topics and sponsored a film festival for young filmmakers. The list of Elias’ contributions to the intellectual life of the Ethiopian, African and international communities is significant and much appreciated.
Those of us who take great pride in what Elias has accomplished could be faulted for speaking very highly of him. Perhaps others who have looked at his efforts could offer a more objective assessment. Prof. Wendy Belcher of Princeton University writes:
Elias is doing something unusual and important. There are very few publishers from the African continent, and, in the U.S., there are [only] a handful which are run by Africans and are publishing African texts. For an Ethiopian to have a press is more appropriate than almost any other nationality. They’ve had a written language going back 3,000 years and have long been in the business of printing and preserving the written word. He’s in a long, honorable line.”
Such is the contribution of Elias and Tsehai Publishers to the preservation, conservation and glorification of Ethiopian and African history and culture. Those who illegally copied and posted the book are not attacking the author of the book, but Elias and Tsehai Publishers. Their crimes are against the very essence of Ethiopian and African culture and those scholars and authors who spend years researching their works. All Ethiopians and Africans are victims of this cowardly crime.
It is important to know that Elias has brought great honor and pride to all Ethiopians. In 2007, he was named Ambassador for Peace by the Universal Peace Federation and the Interreligious and International Federation for World Peace to help establish lines of dialogue between African scholars, poets, historians, academics, aesthetes, journalists and scholars. In 2008, he was profiled in the inaugural edition of Who’s Who in Black Los Angeles along with such distinguished individuals as Steve Wonder, Tavis Smiley, Kobe Bryant, Isaiah Washington and Dr. Maulana Karenga. He was also profiled in a special edition of the LA Weekly as one the leading independent presses in Los Angeles. He has been interviewed on the Voice of America, National Public Radio, Deutsche Welle Radio, SBS Australia and other media on various cultural topics.
Let’s Right a CopyWrong: A Special Plea to All Ethiopians and Others Who Value a Free Press
This past week, the U.S. Congress considered two laws aimed at the type of copyright crime committed against Tsehai Publishers. The Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (“PIPA”) would have allowed the U.S. Attorney General to require domain name registries to “suspend operation of, and lock, the domain name” of a website “dedicated to infringing activity.” The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) would have expanded the ability of U.S. law enforcement to fight online trafficking in copyrighted intellectual property. While lawmakers wrestle with the issues, we can all do our part to support, protect and preserve a unique and irreplaceable institution in the Ethiopian/African Diaspora. Above all, we should defend the right to press freedom and free speech against not only dictators who shutter newspapers and close down publishing houses but also those who use copyright blackmail and the threat of financial bankruptcy against publishers.
Let us do the right thing!
Those who have downloaded the book in digital or print form aware or unaware of the criminality of the act should delete it permanently from your computers and discard the printed version.
Most importantly, we all need to show moral outrage by speaking out against such copyright criminality and moral courage by doing our part to support Tsehai Publishers for it is a treasure we cannot afford to lose.
Let us make our donations in any amount we can by pressing on this link.
On a personal note, I ask those who have followed my weekly commentaries and essays over the past six years to help me help Tsehai Publishers. I believe in Tsehai Publishers and fully support the efforts of Elias Wondimu and his associates who have toiled for years to make a gift of light (Tsehai) to all of us. It is a simple choice we face: We can do nothing and let darkness overwhelm our history, culture and future. Or we can do something and keep the sun shining brightly on Ethiopia, Africa and beyond!