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Why Copyright Protection Matters For The Future of Nollywood

Why Copyright Protection Matters For The Future of Nollywood

Why Copyright Protection Matters For The Future of Nollywood| Afrocritik

Some filmmakers often operate with a limited understanding of copyright laws and the frameworks available to protect their intellectual property.

By Joseph Jonathan 

Earlier this month, a Lagos High Court awarded N25 million in favour of Nollywood actor and filmmaker, Femi Adebayo, for the unlicensed use of his film Survival of Jelili by a YouTube channel. The channel had used his movie poster and title to promote another movie on their platform, thereby deceiving unsuspecting fans and diverting traffic to their channel. While Adebayo’s legal victory likely points to a better future where filmmakers can protect their intellectual property and get better profits from their work, it also sheds light on an age-long problem facing the Nigerian film industry — piracy. 

The issue of piracy is almost as old as the industry itself considering the fact that the first reported case of piracy was in 1980 when Moses Olaiya’s comedy film Orun Mooru was bootlegged during its theatrical run after the film’s master celluloid tape was stolen. It was reported that several cinemas in the country then screened the project without a licence. Since most of the film’s profits never got to him, Olaiya was hard hit as he’d taken a loan to make the film; his career, reputation and finances suffered a huge blow. 

By the time Nigeria’s “organised” film industry emerged in the ’90s, producing direct-to-video titles that gained fame in African countries and within the Nigerian diaspora, filmmakers were confronted with the challenge of piracy. From the era of VHS tapes to DVD transition in the 2000s, mass-producing bootlegged copies of popular films was easy. Street hawking of pirated DVDs became a common sight with areas like Alaba Market, Lagos, gaining notoriety. With internet penetration, and the advent of streaming in the 2010s, piracy evolved, getting online and onto illegal digital file-sharing networks.

The effects of piracy are still as potent as they were in 1980. Last year, a man was arrested for pirating the Femi Adebayo-produced Yoruba epic, Jagun Jagun (unfortunately, Adebayo seems to be no stranger to pirates’ antics). This year, the Cinemas Exhibitors Association of Nigeria (CEAN) reported that Funke Akindele’s A Tribe Called Judah experienced a 55% ticket sales drop between January 12, 2024, and January 18, 2024, when illegal links to download the film began to flood social media. As if that was not enough, in the same month, Toyin Abraham alerted the police about the piracy of her film, Malaika, which led to the arrest and arraignment of six suspects connected to the case. 

Nollywood has witnessed remarkable growth in recent times with several record-breaking films, but despite this growth and success, the industry has not been spared the devastating impact of piracy. The increasing interest generated by emerging celebrities, the allure of fame, and the potential for financial fortune, among other things, have made the industry a prime target for piracy. Also, piracy seems to be a cheaper option for most Nigerians with the cost of cinema tickets skyrocketing and the inability to subscribe to every available streaming platform amidst the crunching economy.

Consequently, piracy has significantly undermined the potential earnings of filmmakers, casting a shadow over the industry’s otherwise impressive achievements and limiting its ability to achieve sustainable growth. Despite the burgeoning number of filmmakers and films — with Nollywood producing well over 2,500 movies annually — the average income per film remains disappointingly low. Most low-budget filmmakers barely break even, a poor return that can be largely attributed to rampant piracy. This pervasive issue siphons off a significant portion of the expected profits, leaving filmmakers struggling to recoup their investments. As a result, the industry’s growth is stunted, with limited ability for producers to reinvest in bigger and better-quality film projects.

What is the State of Copyright Protection in Nigeria?

To understand the state of copyright protection in Nollywood, it is important to point out what copyright entails. According to the Copyright Act 2022, which provides the legal framework for protecting the rights of creators, copyright is the exclusive right to do and authorise the doing of any of the following acts to a work: reproducing, publishing (including an audiovisual),  broadcasting, communicating the work to the public, making it available to the public by wire or wireless means in such a way that members of the public can access the work from a place and at a time individually chosen by them, making any adaptation of the work and with respect to a translation or adaptation of the work, perform any of the acts listed in this section as applicable to the original work. Hence, only literary works, musical works, artistic works, audiovisual works, sound recordings and broadcasts are eligible for copyright under the Copyright Act. 

However, enforcement of these laws remains a significant challenge as piracy is rampant, with unauthorised distribution of films both online and offline. This not only deprives filmmakers of their deserved revenue but also undermines the value of their creative work. 

Speaking on the enforcement of copyright laws, lawyer and comms specialist, Jerry Chiemeke, says “As far as implementation and enforcement go, people will keep flouting laws so long as they feel that there are no consequences for infringement. On the one hand, some people are ignorant about what constitutes copyright violation; some people don’t think downloading a film from bootleg sites translates to infringement. On the other hand, some people blatantly trample on the intellectual property rights of Nigerian film practitioners because the legal framework leaves much to be desired”. For some movie pirates, there is no understanding of the consequences of their actions, especially as the Nigerian Copyright Commission falters in creating awareness on the issue. It is no wonder there are a plethora of individuals who run websites and Telegram groups where movies are downloaded illegally. 

Why Copyright Protection Matters For The Future of Nollywood| Afrocritik
Nigerian Copyright Commission is the legal framework to protect against copyright infringement in Nigeria | NCC on X

It is no secret that court proceedings in Nigeria could drag on for a long time and it is sometimes worse when it concerns copyright issues, which is a specialist area to litigate on. This contributes to the disinterest shown by filmmakers in pursuing court cases against pirates. In Adebayo’s case mentioned before, it took three years before the court ruled in his favour and I’m sure not many filmmakers have the resources or patience to wait that long. 

Similarly, some filmmakers often operate with a limited understanding of copyright laws and the frameworks available to protect their intellectual property. This lack of knowledge makes them particularly susceptible to exploitation and infringement. As a result, many of these creative professionals find themselves at a disadvantage, unable to fully safeguard their work from unauthorised use or to leverage their rights effectively. 

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What Can Be Done? 

It was Winston Churchill who said, “To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often”, and that is a sentiment I share, as regards copyright laws in Nigeria. Considering the ever-changing nature of the world, there needs to be a revamp of the existing copyright laws to reflect global best practices. As Chiemeke says, “The Nigerian Copyright Act needs frequent updating, particularly given the constant evolution of technology and digital ecosystems. Concerning the film industry in particular, the extant legislation in Nigeria on copyright needs to be amended to accommodate specifics and make robust provisions for the protection of filmmakers’ intellectual property rights”. Similarly, the judiciary needs continuous training to be well-equipped to handle intellectual property matters. The creation of a special court for IP litigation to expedite prosecution and convictions for related disputes could also help. 

On the enforcement of copyright laws, Chiemeke emphasises that it is important for people to understand and be reminded of what constitutes a copyright violation. He also asserts that the courts must actively protect intellectual property rights by imposing heavy penalties and ensuring the easy enforcement of rulings when legal actions are taken. Such heavy penalties would be in tandem with first-world countries like the US and UK. In the US, particularly in the state of Michigan, individuals found guilty of taping movies in the cinema are liable to pay a fine of $10,000 and one year in jail (for first-time offenders), while the UK recently passed the Digital Economy Act which increased the maximum penalty for illegally streaming copyrighted content from two years to ten years imprisonment. 

However, the responsibility doesn’t just fall on the government or audience alone as filmmakers have a significant part to play. Filmmakers as the copyright holders should be well informed about the nature of copyright laws and intellectual property (IP) protection. As Chiemeke suggests, filmmakers should be more invested in learning about the scope and extent of their intellectual property rights; They should care about it, and be seen to act like they care about it. He also notes that “It’s key for filmmakers, production companies and distribution networks to engage the services of lawyers who specialise in intellectual property rights.” As a result, legal services should be considered just as essential to every film production, regardless of its size, as the filmmaking process itself. Just as filmmakers carefully choose the right actor for a role or a cinematographer to realize their vision, they should also prioritize the legal aspects.

Even though the anti-piracy crusade remains a never-ending endeavour, it is important that the government, audience and industry players come together to ensure sustainable growth for the industry; a future where filmmakers reap the maximum benefits of their hard work.

Joseph Jonathan is a historian who seeks to understand how film shapes our cultural identity as a people. He believes that history is more about the future than the past. When he’s not writing about film, you can catch him listening to music or discussing politics. He tweets @JosieJp3.

Cover Photo by pippen on Unsplash.

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