Crackdown on Copyright Violation on Course

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The Liberia Copyright Office, through its Operation Big Fish, has set Dec 3 to 15, as deadline for all audio and visual trading companies who are selling pirated movie/audio discs illegally, to close their businesses or face confiscation.  But transgressing parties say they want “more time” to become compliant with law, and are allegedly prepared to buy that time. 

The term “piracy” in this context refers to the act of illegal reproduction and sale of original works such as movies, music, literature and other works without the consent of the originator(s).  The practice is illegal because the film makers, musicians, authors and others who worked hard to create these works – their intellectual property – for public consumption, depend on the legal sales of DVDs, CDs, books, downloads and other media bearing their works, in order to make a living.

Operation Big Fish is the codename for the action under which the copyright office will carry out its action against alleged illegal business pirating intellectual properties.

The officer in charge of Copyright Office and Operation Big Fish, Mr. Ernest Bruce, stated that business places that were found selling pirated movies during the first phase of Operation Big Fish have all been given a December 3 to 15 deadline to remove such unlawful products from the market.

 “The products all of these guys are carrying are out-right illegal; there is no question about it. During the first phase of our action, they filled out papers and signed letters giving them 60 days to clean up their shelves. At the end of the 60 days, we are coming back and if those shelves are not cleaned up, we will seize the goods and destroy them. After the 15th, nothing should go on during Christmas time,” stated Mr. Bruce in an interview back in October.

On July 23, 1997, and act adopting a new copyright law of the Republic of Liberia was approved.  Section 2.40 of the Copyright Law defines the scope of infringement and outlines procedures and remedies in dealing with infringement.  The Law gives the Copyright Director the power of search, seizure and destruction of any items found to be in violation of Liberia’s copyright laws. 

The Operation Big Fish is aimed at protecting intellectual property through the Liberia Copyright Office. In September 2013, it conducted random inspections of business places that were investigated and deemed in violation of copyright law.  Violators who were caught selling copyrighted products, without the approval of its copyright owner, were closed and later re-opened.

According to Mr. Bruce, businesses such as “Standard Plus and Chris Iyke, both of which were found in violation, were actually selling movies and music instead of the household products that they were registered to sell.” Mr. Bruce said.

The victims of copyright infringement in Liberia include not just Liberian content creators, but also those of foreign origin, whose works are illegally imported or duplicated here.  Operation Big Fish covers them all, by virtue of Liberia’s signature to the Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.  An international agreement governing copyright, the Berne Convention requires its signatories to recognize the copyright of works of authors from other signatory countries (known as members of the Berne Union) in the same way as it recognizes the copyright of its own nationals. It was first accepted in Berne, Switzerland, 1886.  Liberia signed on in December 1988 and is one of 167 member countries worldwide. 

“The copyright office has been quiet and it was about time that we take this 40-page document and bring it to life by enforcing it, and making sure that artists are compensated for their works. We don’t have a choice about this if we want our artists to grow and start realizing the fruits of their labor. We have to protect other people’s work, the same way they will protect ours. That’s the basic principle in this work. We are all doing what we can do for this country to make things better, it is a serious challenge,” stated Mr. Bruce.

In as much, money generated by piracy enables violators to obtain more illegal products as well as other contraband items. It is illegal to make copies of CDs for profit.

“I’m not going to pull out a whole lot of paper work, I have got every piece of document to support our decision we are taking. We have a law in the country on copyright, the 1997 law. Roland Morris at the Ministry of Commerce applied the copyright law since 1997. We are now moving towards the first deadline based on the letters that were written,” Reminded Mr. Bruce.

Meanwhile, the president of the Liberian Audio/Visual movie dealer’s of Liberia film association Justin Ndebueze, who was also given a deadline to discontinue selling pirated movies in his store, says there has not been any formal explanation as to why he has been found in violation.

“There has not been any agreement that was reached between us and the Copyright Office that the selling of movies should be stopped, or about the illegality of selling movies. We have not been taught much about it,” the distraught businessman said.

According to Justin, the Movie dealers association would like to be taught about what makes the business illegal, and would also like to be given the opportunity for the “violated” law to be explained to them for their own understanding.

“This will drastically affect the living condition of everyone who is involved in this business, our children and our families. We are all Liberians who pay taxes to the government, and we want an opportunity to search for another end while they explain to us what it takes to be in this business,” Stated Justin.

Mr. Bruce feels otherwise.  “We have a very bad reputation as a country with regards to the protection of intellectual properties. These are Nigerians. It’s the foreigners doing illegal trade in our country, and we’re in trouble. I believe it’s a national security issue, it’s a national security issue when you have a huge group of foreigners coming into Liberia and engaging in illegal sales of protected works that are illegally being sold, and we all just sit down. Some of them have questionable immigration status. The problem is deep. We’re up to a serious challenge,” said Mr. Bruce

Furthermore, Justin says that his association would like to negotiate with Operation Big Fish so that their deadline can be extended.  “Give us time and the opportunity to link up with the movie producers who give license’s,” Justin pleaded.

Mr. Bruce, who revealed to this paper that there have been several attempts by unspecified persons to bribe him in order to call off the deadline, has sternly disregarded putting a halt to the deadline.  “As long as I’m here with my background and all of this stuff, I will not take bribe from anyone. Right now they’re raising funds of $25,000 a piece to bring a package so that we can stop this entire process and maybe give them 2-5 years. No, I’m not doing this job for money; I will not take bribe from anyone. This is a battle going on right now, and the problem is, this is going to get worse, but we are undaunted and I’m not going to back down from it,” said Mr. Bruce. 

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