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Copyrighting ‘Another Rap’ is theft of Banyankore cultural property

By Mwambustya Ndebesa

President Yoweri Museveni has applied to the Registration Service Bureau for exclusive intellectual property rights over the Banyankore Children’s rhyme song under the title “Another Rap”. For the non-Banyankore the general perception is that the two songs/rhymes/poems were a composition of Museveni.

Those two songs/rhymes are old age Banyankore kid rhymes. Almost every Munyankore above the age of five or so years and is/was born and raised in the Ankole countryside knows one or both songs now under the rebaptised label of “Another Rap”. Museveni has not added any single word to the rhymes. He has not even added any new lyrics except the English words at the end which are actually not part of the song but mere comments.

The Banyankore would find it unacceptable and unbelievable that anybody including President Museveni can claim copy rights or exclusive rights to the songs. Museveni, like any other Munyankore, has the right to use the songs but not to have exclusive rights. The song is in the public domain and therefore public property. Museveni is taking the craze of privatisation too far and now wants to privatise even Banyankore cultural heritage as his private intellectual property.

To copyright any art or composition of art you must have originated it or at least have had substantial improvement on the original composition which is not the case in these two rhymes.

This attempt at copyrighting Banyankore cultural composition that is in the public domain is not new. The most interesting of all was a one late Mzee Bwafamba, a prominent Mushambo  (ruling clan of Mpororo Kingdom ) of Ntungamo, who went a mile farther and “patented” the planet Moon. Bwafamba lay claim to exclusive ownership of the Moon and as a notable of the area demanded that any reference to the Moon must be suffixed with his name “Okwezi kwa Bwafamba” literally meaning Bwafamba’s Moon.

If for some reason a person associated with him either as a relative, a resident of the area or visitor mentioned the moon without the suffix kwa Bwafamba he/she earned himself a punishment or reprimand for dishonouring the Big Man and from that time some people still refer to the Moon as that of Bwafamba.

Another lady called Violet Froerich Kajubiri who is not a stranger to many Ugandans has been for some years writing one Runyankore proverb in the Orumuri, a vernacular sister newspaper of  New Vision, every week. This is under the title Enfumu ya wiiki and adds copyright VKF 2010 or which ever year in which it is published. She has done it for quite sometime and almost all Banyankore proverbs are now in “Orumuri” and therefore copyrighted by Kajubiri. Therefore all Banyankore proverbs are exclusively hers as private intellectual property when in reality these proverbs belong to the Banyankore as traditional heritage collectively.

Now the latest is President Museveni himself. He goes to meet his youth supporters at a function, just sings or recites or memorises two traditional rhymes using exactly the same words and lyrics save for the English sentences which actually was not part of the composition but a mere comment that Recording Companies mixed in the song and the next thing we hear is that he has applied for a copyright!

For some readers and listeners of the rhymes who are not familiar with the implications of Patent, Copyright and Trade Mark laws and rights you better get informed. When an individual or company applies and is granted copyrights over the art composition or book, it means that piece of work becomes private property like one owning say a cow. Nobody will use the song afterwards without permission from the author or composer. To use it you have to pay or if he does not want to give you permission or sell to you, then you are disallowed. In this case once Museveni gets a copy right, a group such as Ndere Troup cannot use the song. Any Munyankore who wants to write a poem or play cannot use this song or its lyrics. Imagine a Munyankore having to seek or buy rights to use Natema akati karara……from an individual fellow Munyankore! Incredible!

Furthermore, copy rights have immense financial and livelihood implications. If anybody infringes on the rights he/she pays heavily. And the rights owner can pass them to his children as private property. When “Another Rap” is copyrighted or Museveni signs a Ringtone Contract with say Zain Telecom which I am told is being pursued, he and the company will earn large sums of money. If Zain or MTN has say 4 million subscribers who download the ringtone, it means two billion shillings a month for each ringtone is five hundred shillings. Yet these songs belong to all Banyankore.

At this rate if Banyankore do not raise objection to this rapid privatisation of their cultural heritage, they will wake up one day to learn that Runyankore is private property of an individual.

On my part, I am consulting my lawyers and I intend to petition the Registration Service Bureau to block Museveni from copyrighting a public song. I will be doing this on behalf of Banyankore, not as an individual. Even I, as an individual Munyankore, has no right to copyright the song.

Indeed all Africans and Ugandans should wake up and guard against this patenting and copy righting public property move. There are reported cases where foreigners have come to Africa and found indigenous plants which Africans have used as medicine for many countries and then gone ahead to patent them. These foreigners have taken away our plant seeds and patented them as theirs at the expense of Africans. If this trend continues, Africans are going to lose their seed sovereignty and this will create food insecurity in Africa.

Furthermore, government or communities should endeavour to identify cultural songs and poems and then acknowledge them as being in the public domain. Otherwise this privatisation move is going to dispossess Ugandans of their common cultural heritage. May be the Uganda Museum or any other organisation should come up with a project to document these cultural achievements both tangible and intangible and then list them as public property. Short of that, private individuals or companies are going to own these collective cultural heritage  as their individual  properties.

Mwambustya Ndebesa is a senior lecturer of history at the faculty of Arts, Makerere University

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