In 2013, veteran musician and former Gendarme (paramilitary police officer) Augustin Mwitenawe gave a radio interview where he talked about the plight of Rwandan musicians during the 1980s.
His remarks came against the backdrop of a court case where some radio stations had been ordered to pay damages to legendary Rwandan singer, Cecile Kayirebwa, over the use of her music without her permission or paying her royalties.
“It is good that today artistes can claim rights over their songs and can even take the matter to court. This was not possible back in the day,” Mwitenawe said.
The Nta Rurabo Rutoha Rutuhiwe singer narrated how musicians once asked the government-owned Radio Rwanda, which used to charge Rwf300 ($0.35) per song, to pay them royalty fees, but the story almost ended badly.
“After we made the request, a top security agent told me, ‘Niko sha, wanga Muvoma yacu,’ meaning ‘Why do you hate our Movement?’” Mwitenawe recalled.
It was in reference to Juvénal Habyarimana’s single party, Mouvement Révolutionnaire National pour le Développement (MRND). It was a very serious accusation and the artistes were forced to give up their request.
Mwitenawe’s remarks show a contrast between a generation of artistes who fought in vain to get royalties for their work because of government obstruction and the current generation that has to be pushed by the government to earn from their craft.
“We are concerned about the current situation where artistes are paying broadcasters or individual presenters to play their music, while it should be the other way round,” said Blaise Ruhima Mbaraga, the division manager in charge of intellectual property registration at Rwanda Development Board (RDB).
Since 2016, the Rwanda Society of Authors — a Collective Management Organisation supported by the government through RDB and the Ministry of Trade — has been pushing for copyright users especially broadcasters, hotels, club owners and public transport to pay royalties, especially for the music they use.
The move has however been met with ruthless resistance from broadcasters, who insist playing music benefits the artistes and therefore they shouldn’t have to pay anything.
Singers have publicly disowned the Rwanda Society of Authors, saying it “has no mandate to collect royalties for their songs.” Many of them are popular artistes and are not members of the Collective Management Organisation.
“Many artistes do not understand the cause we are trying to push for,” said Epa Binamungu, the president of the Rwanda Society of Authors.
There seems to be an impasse between the Rwanda Society of Authors and artistes, with musicians terming the society a third party intruder. They also accuse broadcasters of being unwilling to pay royalties and some even adopt tactics to evade that responsibility.
For example, many broadcasters make musicians sign an agreement stipulating that they are “willingly allowing their songs to be played free of charge,” and pledge never to “initiate any kind of complaint linked to the use of their songs by the contracting broadcaster,” if they want their songs aired.
“We should not accept a contract like this because it is a form of exploitation. It puts the future of artistes and their craft in danger,” said Ruhima, adding that exceptions would be individual artistes signing lucrative licensing contracts.
Ruhima added that the Rwanda Society of Authors, with the support of the government, will collect royalties from all copyright users based on negotiated tariffs, without distinction between members and non-members of the Collective Management Organisation, and whether or not artistes have signed free licencing agreements.
Some analysts have questioned the government’s involvement in the enforcement of copyright and related rights, as this is supposed to be under “private companies,” according to the provision of the 2009 intellectual property law.
Stakeholders like broadcasters and artistes also question the legitimacy and mandate of Rwanda Society of Authors to act on behalf of all artistes, some of whom are not its members.
“We cannot make this distinction while collecting royalties because the Collective Management Organisation collects all royalties even for foreign artistes. If their work is used locally, we collect their royalties and send it to them,” said Binamungu.
Intellectual property experts agree that the Collective Management Organisation gets its powers from owners who assign their rights to the society or appoint the society as their agent.
“A Collective Management Organisation acts on behalf of artists or authors based on an agreement,” said Prof Francois Xavier Kalinda.
Some commentators warn that asking broadcasters, deemed promoters of local music, to pay royalties can kill local talent. They argue that forcing broadcasters to pay royalties could see them opt for cheaper international content, leaving local artistes struggling for airtime.
But this seems unlikely given the collection model adopted by Rwanda Society of Authors. According to Binamungu, the society negotiates fixed tariffs with users and grants blanket licences, which allow the licensee to use any work in the organisation’s repertoire.
Rwanda Society of Authors said this model will benefit artistes and even allows those who are not yet members to join and get their money.
Today’s artistes want promotion and are willing to pay for radio or TV airtime, while back in the day artistes could not fight for airtime because TV and radio stations were few.