There's an interesting case being heard in Havana before a British judge. The question involves who owns publishing rights to some old Cuban songs made popular again by The Buena Vista Social Club.
The judge, identified in the press only as Mr. Justice Lindsay, is considering 14 songs written between 1930 and 1959. They were originally published by Peer Music, a U.S. company that had an office in Havana before fidel took power. Peer says it signed publishing deals with the musicians which paid 50/50 - a traditional split then and now.
Publishing is a rather complicated concept It involves only royalties from publishing the songs - not money from live performances or recording contracts. It comes from the days when songwriters wrote songs, submitted them to a publisher, the publisher printed the songs as sheet music and promoted the songs to musicians and tried to get the songs recorded. The publisher made money from sales of the printed songs also a few cents from each record sold. The usual split of 50/50 recognized that both the songwriter and the publisher had an investment in the song.
Reading between the lines, it would appear that Peer paid whatever it paid to the songwriters until 1959. When fidel took over and the U.S. established the trade embargo, Peer says it set up accounts for its songwriters and put the money aside for them. The songs were largely forgotten and not making any money until 1997.
In that year, Ry Cooder produced the Buena Vista Social Club album, and traditional Cuban music became very popular again - including the songs published by Peer. They are apparently making money once more, and Peer says it has the rights to the songs, and the contracts to prove it.
The International press obviously doesn't understand the story, as The Guardian, Reuters, The BBC, try to make it a story of exploited songwriters. The Telegraph does a little better. It sets out that the dispute is not really between Peer and the songwriters, but between Peer and fidel. Because of course, fidel, as with everything else on the island, has nationalized the songs.
The case was brought by Peer International Corporation, of America, which owned the rights to the songs before they were allegedly appropriated by Editora Musical de Cuba (EMC), after Fidel Castro came to power in 1959.
EMC claims that it is salvaging royalties from songs that have never benefited their impoverished writers. It says the original contracts are void because they were "unconscionable bargains" not recognised in law.
The reports say EMC claims the songwriters never received anything but a few pesos and a drink of rum. But Peer says it held the money in accounts for the songwriters, and when a songwriter escaped to the free world, Peer paid whatever money he had earned. Peer says that after trade restrictions were eased in the 1990s, it paid songwriters, or there heirs, who still lived in Cuba. It would appear from reading the poorly written reports that some songwriters claim they were not paid fairly. It would appear from the Guardian report that Peer has some evidence it has been paying songwriters.
"I received very small amounts of money," said 83-year-old Evelio Landa Martinez, who wrote the 1955 hit "The Mulatas of the Cha Cha Cha."
"That's my signature," he said, peering at a 1999 receipt for a $1,443 cash payment from Peer International.
I don't know exactly what to make of this. Publishing never makes a whole lot of money for a songwriter on just one song - especially a song written more than 40-years before. And the story doesn't say what period the check was supposed to cover. Publishers usually pay quarterly - does this represent payment for one quarter in 1999? If so, it seems to me that's pretty good. Or, does it represent the entire payement from 1959 until 1999? And if the latter is the case, in what quarter did the Buena Vista Social Club album begin to bring in money? There are just not enough facts in the news stories to judge.
It's tough to tell who's right and wrong here. Music publishers have certainly cheated plenty of songwriters in the past - and maybe Peer cheated the Cubans. But we know that fidel castro has cheated everyone in Cuba - cheated them out of their freedom and their hopes and dreams. And unfortunately, it would appear that despite the press reports trying to put a human spin on the story, this is a fight between a music publisher and fidel. If you were a songwriter, which one do you think would be most likely to pay your royalties?
Update - is here.