Writers of Buena Vista hits paid with a 'few pesos'

A court battle with Latin-American rhythms opened in London on Tuesday with two publishing companies clashing over the ownership of the copyright to music played by the Cuban band Buena Vista Social Club.

The argument centres on whether the composers of music that took the world by storm in 1997 were properly rewarded or, instead, received “at most a few pesos and maybe a drink of rum”.

The plot is complicated by allegations that the Cuban publisher is under the direction and control of the Cuban ministry of the interior.

In the high court, Peer International Corporation claims that its copyright to songs dating back to the 1930s has been unlawfully taken over by the Cuban government.

But a Cuban company, Editora Musical de Cuba (EMC), says it is trying to salvage royalties from songs it claims have never made a penny for their impoverished writers. It says all the original contracts are void because they were “unconscionable bargains” not recognised in law.

Pushpinder Saini, representing Peer, told Justice Lindsay that there had been a massive resurgence of interest in Cuban music since the Buena Vista film and album of 1997.

He said Peer, which owns the title track and a large number of other works featured on the film and album, had paid royalties to the composers until the Cuban revolution in 1959, when the US trade embargo stopped payments to Cuba.

Writers and composers living outside Cuba were paid and bank accounts were set up to hold funds for those who remained on the island. Many have now been paid since the US government relaxed its embargo in 1994, added Saini.

“In recent years, the heirs of certain deceased authors have themselves approached Peer in order to continue to license to Peer for the future,” he said.
“But they have wished to minimise evidence of contacts because they, for good reason, fear the Cuban regime, which wishes itself to ensure that any US dollars to which such heirs have an entitlement are secured by EMC as part of the Cuban state.”

He said all 14 authors mentioned in the action, all now dead, might have been poor when they signed with Peer. “But they were a well-educated and cultured group of people. Even if by western standards they were poor, they were not ignorant and were certainly aware of the value of their music.”

So Peer had decided to sue Termidor Music Publishers, which claims exclusive rights through EMC, claiming it sought to register itself as owning the copyright of the songs in the UK.

“It is not clear whether EMC is part of the Cuban state or a private company operating in Cuba, but Peer believe it to be the former,” said Saini. “It is certainly agreed to be under the direction and control of the Cuban ministry of the interior.”

For EMC, Peter Prescott QC said in papers submitted to the court that Peer’s claims to the music of more than 600 Cuban composers were all invalid.

“We shall demonstrate that these contracts were so cunningly contrived as to allow the publishers to get away with paying the composers practically nothing,” he said. “The composers in this case received nothing or, at most, a few pesos and maybe a drink of rum.”

He would produce evidence to show that the composers received no royalties either before or after the revolution.

He said even after the embargo was relaxed, Peer obtained a licence to distribute pre-1988 royalties at no more than $300 per person “over time”.

The hearing continues. - Guardian Unlimited Â

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