The efficiency of telechargeurs
Finding ways to earn money was a constant issue, but most musicians I worked with had arrangements with many clubs and were performing somewhere in town several times per week. Though artists faced low-quality opportunities when compared to more developed sectors in other countries, the market was providing them work. While detailed accounts of low or non-existent standards in live performance and other sectors were outlined in our PSDS value-chain gap analysis, it is far more useful to look at what did function well in Liberia, rather than what is lacking. For that, we must look at the informal distribution and sales marketplace.
The average Liberian consumer did not often have the technological means to directly copy music themselves. They were buying music from telechargeurs,11 the street vendors offering to transfer unlicensed files of song recordings onto cell phones, as well as distributors of unauthorised copies of mostly foreign physical media. Local Liberian music was difficult to find in physical formats, but the telechargeurs were distributing copies. One popular Liberian artist told me that he had encountered copies of his music for sale in unauthorised physical formats, but the main trade in local music was in digital copies on phones and laptops. The consumer pays for the music in this informal scenario, but the composer and performers are not compensated. This method of consuming unlicensed music is normalised and not widely understood as infringement.12 Whether physical copies or digital files on a phone or SIM card, the informal marketplace was extremely efficient at providing consumers with the music they desire at a price point that they could afford. No research on the level of revenue in this sector exists.
A few of the more popular Liberian artists I spoke with resented the fact that their music was being sold on the streets without revenue flowing to them, but the informal market was the only option for consumers to haveaccess to copies of songs. The topic of using holograms on stickers to distinguish authentic copies of releases was a main topic of discussion at the 2011 Intellectual Property conference I attended. The holograms finally came into circulation in 2016 (Dopoe 2016), and this only is a stopgap measure for physical media.
The tendency to view this informal trade in recordings as criminal, parasitic, and a drain on creativity is a reaction influenced by the northern countries’ conception of piracy of goods. Liberian musicians who were active during the pre-digital, pre-civil war era during which selling recordings was lucrative have also contributed to the narrative of the existing informal market as immoral, and called for government intervention to criminalise it (Menkor 2018). Class tension between street vendors and more elite Liberians in government is also an element to be considered. However, purchasing pirated media goods was as normal as buying coconuts. Every Liberian I was friendly with had a cell phone and was happy to let me hear their current favourite played on it. It cannot be overstated that this informal market was the only media market in Monrovia. I will now unpack the reflective criticism of our work: the approach to copyright policy reform, and the issues with using the US industries as the desired template for the Liberian sector.
Formalising the informal: enforcing copyright by integrating existing systems
Given the comparatively larger scale of informality within the developing world, a global perspective inevitably requires some recalibration of policy settings and orientations. A different, indeed creative, policy approach is required for effective engagement with this [informal] sector.
(UNDP and UNESCO 2013, 27-28)
The Collective Society of Liberia have signed an 11-count position statement titled, ‘The Monrovia Declaration’, aimed at corralling and utilizing every possible resource to stop piracy and other infringements on intellectual property within the Republic of Liberia.
(Daily Observer 2014)
The copyright office of Liberia faces mighty challenges. They are tasked to educate the public to respect legal rights that are based on the concept of intellectual property, a relatively new concept to their culture. Their first Liberian copyright law was passed in 1997. Markets of unauthorised goods have been operating openly for decades. Vendors selling unlicensed DVDs of movies and television programmes are ubiquitous on the streets of Monrovia, including directly in front of the Ministry of Commerce where the Office of Intellectual Property was operating.
For copies of recorded media, informal vendors like the telechargeurs were the only retailers in Liberia. There was no record or video store selling legitimate copies. There were vendors selling media out of wheelbarrows, bags, and baskets, feeding their families like any other productive member of Liberia’s main marketplace - by selling goods on the street. The large distribution warehouses could be visited, but they were selling bulk product to the vendors and were not organised for retail browsing. Genuine copies of Liberian goods were supposed to carry holograms certifying their legitimacy, but I never once noticed this. I also never actually saw local Liberian content for sale on the street - counterfeit foreign goods completely dominated in the physical format. The street vendors carried mostly Nollywood and Hollywood films and television series. Many contained Asian language subtitles and packaging, though certainly there are distribution networks within Africa of pirated DVDs as well (Larkin 2004).
The telechargeurs and street vendors are the record store clerks of Liberia - curating collections of songs and convincing consumers to listen to certain artists. These are the purported enemies of the Liberian musicians and the copyright office - profiting from copying music illicitly. This adversarial perspective is unnecessary and detrimental. These informal vendors can be legitimised and licensed in the interim while Liberia develops formal systems, and these informal vendors are the best candidates to become the formal workforce.
While the 2013 UNESCO Creative Economy report is sensitive to the role of informal markets and advocates a collaborative approach to integrating informal systems into formal copyright structures, the problem of integrating informal markets into a legitimate copyright system is daunting, and minimal specific advice is given in the report. While criminalisation does not always bring strict enforcement, examples of strong penalties for commercial infringement are more easily found than accounts of successful formalisation. For example, a gesture by informal cassette vendors in Ghana to the Ghanaian government in the 1980s to legitimise their unlicensed activities by paying fees to the Ghanaian performing rights organisation were squashed by lobbying from the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (Collins 2006), and the Ghanaian copyright collection agency now sends infringers to jail for selling music from their laptop (De Beukelaer 2015). By recommending increased enforcement of copyright without a strategy for informal workers to work towards legitimacy, my policy recommendations in the PSDS chapter contributed to an anti-piracy strategy which pursues the vilification of the music sales force of Liberia. This could result in their unnecessary exclusion from future legitimate market structures.
While it might seem the recording (and film) industries typically pursue strategies to fight infringement based on prosecution or litigation, that is not always the case. It is also possible to legitimise and extract revenue from infringement, an approach I was not familiar with in 2014. Three examples where legitimate revenue was extracted from existing unlicensed activity to create formal market structures are:
- 1 In 2011, China’s most popular website Baidu was a major source of unauthorised downloading activity. Negotiations with the world’s largest record labels (Warner, Sony, and Universal) resulted in the unprecedented levy of fees onto an ISP/website for the activity it was hosting (Lee 2011).
- 2 Home/private recording levies on blank recordable media such as cassettes and blank CDs are collected and distributed to content creators in numerous countries, including the US, UK, Australia, and most of Europe (Wijminga et al. 2016).
- 3 The Nigerian film industry has been able to create a remarkably efficient worldwide distribution system and extract enough revenue from it to create a successful and influential cultural industry. While it can be difficult to understand how revenue flows back to creators, Lobato (2010) posits that this is possible when production and distribution costs, remain low enough to keep prices for legitimate goods equivalent to pirated while relying on the efficiencies of existing international informal distribution networks: goods are kept affordable and easily accessible.
Updating copyright laws and creating structures for the protection of intellectual property are necessary for the accession to the WTO, so it must be noted that this issue cannot be viewed in a vacuum. The livelihoods of many Liberians outside the music sector are affected by WTO membership, so intellectual property strategies are not solely about the music industries, or even just the CCIs. Ethnographic work into the relationship between local practice and copyright in countries that are developing copyright infrastructure, such as that of Larisa Mann (2011) on Jamaican music and copyright, can help to advocate for appropriate exceptions and limitations to ensure that compliance with international copyright treaties benefits both local producers and consumers as well as foreign copyright owners concerned about enforcing their rights. As both Mann (2012) and Drahos & Braithwaite (2003) note, there are structural similarities between colonialism, feudalism, and the enforcement of the IP rights of a large foreign country in a fragile economy in the Global South.
These were not concerns we considered when drafting our PSDS chapter. We assumed international media companies and other investors hoping to finance Liberia’s music industries will want to see a strong copyright system and enforcement of rights before putting money into Liberian music ventures. The first priority interventions we advocated in the PSDS strategy focused on copyright education campaigns, updating copyright laws, and strengthening protection of intellectual property rights, including enforcement and confiscation of informal goods. These objectives seem to
Cultural industry infrastructure in Liberia 103 be progressing in Liberia with the passage of new copyright laws in 2016 (Republic of Liberia 2016) and the establishment of a Collective Management Organisation to provide administrative structures for royalty collection. Efforts to curtail infringement and improve legitimate systems do not need to include treating informal vendors like criminals. As of early 2018 there are no reported campaigns to confiscate goods or arrest vendors, and Liberia has a newly elected government. Aside from a power struggle over who will run the copyright office (Dopoe 2018), there have not been any notable news reports since the passage of the new copyright law.