Record Busters (Copyright in Syria)

Syrian musicians continue to struggle to protect their intellectual property.

Lena Chamamyan

Lena Chamamyan

Photos Adel Samara

“I have no rights over my own work,” Lena Chamamyan, one of Syria’s most acclaimed jazz singers, said. “I’m not just talking about general copyright protection. I can’t even claim the credit for my own album because it has been stolen and registered under another person’s name.”

Since recording her first album Hal Asmar Ellon (The Brown Boy) in 2006, Chamamyan, like many other musicians in Syria, has found herself locked in an ongoing struggle with the country’s lucrative piracy business. Despite Syria’s Intellectual Property Protection Law, issued in 2001, prohibiting the copying and sale of an artist’s material without their consent, unauthorised CDs – sometimes without the artist’s name even accredited to them – continue to flood the local market.

While those who break the law potentially face up to two years imprisonment and a penalty of SYP 100,000 (USD 2,105), professionals in the music industry claim a lack of mechanisms for enforcing copyright protection has allowed the piracy market to continue profiting at their expense, largely unhindered.

Dubious contracts

Chamamyan’s problems started in 2006 when she contracted an agent to reproduce and distribute her award-winning album in Syria. After signing the contract, Chamamyan followed procedures and registered it at Syria’s Directorate of Copyrights, the body responsible for registering music contracts and informing musicians about their rights.

Instead of reproducing the album under Chamamyan’s name, however, the rogue agent sold the singer’s attribution rights on the album to a third party. The deal was finalised in black and white in a contract which, to Chamamyan’s surprise, was registered and filed away without question at the directorate.

“This is crazy,” she said. “I’ve registered my album all over the world, even in the Comoros, but it’s only in my home country that I can’t claim credit for my own album.”

After reading through the contract, Yahya Naddaf, manager of the Directorate of Copyrights, admitted its terms violate the law.

“The attribution rights can’t be sold, not even by the author himself,” he said. “This contract is ridiculous.”

Yet, Naddaf maintained the directorate was not at fault for registering the contract. He said the body was duty-bound to tell artists about their rights concerning copyright protection, but bore no responsibility for ensuring that contracts complied with the Intellectual Property Protection Law.

“It’s not our job at the directorate to check the contracts and solve issues regarding ownership and attribution,” he said. “The directorate is only responsible for informing the artists about their rights and registering their work.”

Lack of enforcement

The directorate has no legal body or mechanisms in place to follow up on suspected copyright violations. Consequently, issues arising over intellectual property disputes should be taken up in court, Naddaf said.

“Why should a singer have to go to court to reclaim their right of attribution when, according to Syrian law, it can’t be taken or sold in the first place?” Basel Rajoub, saxophonist and musical composer on Hal Asmar Ellon, said. “Why did the directorate accept an illegal contract of sale anyway?”

While breaches of Syria’s copyright protection laws are commonplace throughout the country – record shops are full of pirated CDs on sale at knock-off prices – recording artists are reluctant to take their cases to court because of the notoriously slow, bureaucratic process.

“It’s not like we are asking for a washing machine that will still work after four years of litigation,” Rajoub said. “By the time the case comes up for review, the album will be long forgotten by the audience.”

Recording artists are not the only ones to be affected by the lack of mechanisms for implementing Syria’s Intellectual Property Protection Law in the music industry. Damascus-based music producer Ahmad Sunduk forked out SYP 712,500 (USD 15,000) to make two albums four years ago, but has yet to profit from the investment because cheaper pirated copies of his music are easily available throughout the country. Like Rajoub, Sunduk is reluctant to go to court.

“It’s not my job to search for every retailer that copied my album, sue him and then wait for a year or more until a judgment is made,” he said. “By then copies of the album will already have spread throughout the market.”

Lobbying government

Tahany Sinjab, founder of Syria’s first record company Majal, tried to solve the problem of illegal pirating by providing music shops in Syria with a higher profit margin on the sale of original CDs by local artists. The company sold its CDs to retailers for SYP 200 (USD 4.20) and asked retailers to sell them for SYP 250 (USD 5.30), offering retailers prone to counterfeiting a profit of SYP 50 (USD 1.10). The plan failed to penetrate the market, however, and illegal copies continued to sell. Less than two years after it was established, Majal went bankrupt in early 2008.

Not deterred by the failure of Majal, Sunduk recently launched Mais al-Reem, a new Syrian record company. Banding together with some of the country’s most acclaimed musicians, the company is lobbying the directorate for the strict implementation of the Intellectual Property Rights Law.

Naddaf said the directorate “welcomes all requests”. He added that a new draft law for the establishment of a special committee charged with monitoring illegal pirating activities and implementing Syria’s copyright protection laws is under consideration. Just when the committee will start operating, however, is uncertain, with Naddaf estimating that it could take up to two or three years to get off the ground.

“In the end, if I lose too much money I’ll close my company and start a new business,” Sunduk said. “The only loser here is the Syrian music scene.”

For more information about Mais al-Reem log on to www.alkhaimeh.com.

This article was published in Syria Today magazine

Protecting Intellectual Property
As well as the Intellectual Property Protection Law of 2001, Syria is also a signatory to various international intellectual property rights protection agreements, such as the 1961 Rome Convention for the Protection of Performers, Producers of Phonograms and Broadcasting Organizations, and the 1971 Berne Convention for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works.

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