Recently Copyright Society of Nigeria (COSON) the biggest copyright management organisation (CMO) in Nigeria floored the Cross River State (CRS) at the appeal over rights infringement arising from the former popular Calabar festival.
In the midst of the victory glass clinking and wild jubilations telephone calls, newdawnngr’s Charles Okogene caught up with Chief Tony Okoroji, the ‘ never say die’ chairman of COSON and this is what he has to say about the victory.
Q. What does this recent victory mean to COSON?’
Our victory over the Cross River State Government is not just victory for COSON. It is a historic victory for all Nigerian musicians, the entire Nigerian creative family and the copyright system across the world. The courts have affirmed the intellectual property rights of creative people in Nigeria and stated loudly that in Nigeria, no one is above the law, not any government whether federal, state or local. This is a key legacy that we will leave for the coming generation. The monetary award is important but more important is the precedent set by the courts.
Q. A staggering half a billion Naira! Is this not too much?
Anyone who understands that we are in a new world where intellectual property is the building block of any strong economy cannot consider the award staggering. Intellectual property is the new oil and steel. Any nation that does not place proper value on intellectual property is destined to be a failed nation. America will go to war over the infringement of intellectual property rights. That is why I have dedicated a substantial part of my life to the promotion of intellectual property rights.
Q. COSON is known as a lover of settlement outside the courtroom, what happened in this case? How did it run up to the appellate court?
If anybody thinks that we rushed to court in the matter, the person should please bury the thought. I made countless efforts to resolve the matter out of court and was continuously tossed around. Even while the case was ongoing, I pleaded with officials of the Cross River State Carnival Commission that the matter be resolved out of court. I begged the Chairman of the Carnival Commission, Gab Onah, whom I consider a friend. I pleaded with then Attorney-General of the state, Attah Ochinke but I guess like most government officials in Nigeria, they concluded that the government is above the law. Even when we won at the Federal High Court and CRSG decided to appeal, I pleaded for a resolution, and I was rebuffed.
In hindsight, it is a good thing that there was no backroom settlement of the Calabar Carnival matter because we would have been denied the opportunity of these historic decisions of the courts which have become important foundations for the future of the Nigerian creative industry.
Of course, I was told that I was a fool to expect to win a case in Calabar against the Cross River State Government. It took us nine solid years of stringent legal battle, but the reality is that ultimately, we won both at the Federal High Court Calabar and at the Court of Appeal in Calabar.
Q. For the last time can you take us through the genesis of the case?
Let me make it clear that the case was not against the Calabar Carnival but against the abuse of copyright at the carnival. I am a great fan of Carnival Calabar. I have no doubt that the event is one of the greatest legacies of my good friend, His Excellency, Governor Donald Duke, himself, a fantastic musician who once visited my home state, Imo, at my invitation. Courtesy of the Cross River State Government, I was for several years an official adjudicator at the Carnival which attracts tremendous attention across the nation and across the continent. The state invested hugely in infrastructure for the carnival, which was a major tourist attraction. Hotels in Calabar made money, textile suppliers made money, fashion designers made money, construction people made money. Even the state charged money for several events and sold tickets, Okada riders, cab drivers, landlords made money too.
Huge sums of money were invested in massive public address systems, trucks to convey them and equipment to play music to thousands of people. Music has been a major driver of the Calabar Carnival. You very well know that it is unlawful to deploy music in a public or commercial setting without a licence. The music which is intellectual property belonging to people was deployed freely at the carnival. It was not licensed. That is gross abuse of intellectual property. I had to stop participating in the carnival. I could not justify continuing to be part of a system that rapes the rights of creative people, the battle which I have fought for much of my life.
I have said elsewhere that I love Calabar and Calabarians. Some of the leaders of the carnival bands in Calabar are long term friends of mine. I am not sure there is anyone who knows me well who does not know the long-standing friendship I have enjoyed with Senator Florence Ita Giwa who has supported me in so many ways over the years. Late Nchewi Imoke, elder brother to Lyell Imoke, past governor of Cross River State, was best friend to my elder brother, Victor and we spent many great moments together in my Lagos residence. Former Minister of Culture, Edem Duke is my guy. Former Chief of Staff to Governor Imoke, Alex Egbonna, remains a cherished friend of my family.
Q. Should in case the same elements that advised the state to appeal the case still insist the state should go to Supreme Court, will you go?
Of course, we will join them. We cannot stop them. But what exactly will they be arguing at the Supreme Court? They lost woefully at the Federal High Court. The Court of Appeal panel made up of Justice Raphael Chike Agbo, Justice Bilkisu Bello Aliyu and Justice H.A. Barka, unanimously dismissed each of the four issues raised by them in their appeal against the judgment of Justice Inyang Ekwo. The Court of Appeal went on to award a cost of One Hundred Thousand Naira against the Cross River State Government and the Calabar Carnival Commission. We are marathon runners and are ready for their next move.
Q. What if the state insists it will not pay because NCC does not recognize COSON as a collecting society. What will you do?
What has NCC got to do with the judgment? NCC is not a court of law. The musical works and sound recordings used at the carnival are not assigned to NCC. They are assigned to COSON, a going concern. The powers of the NCC are exaggerated. Don’t forget that I was on the board of NCC for several years and I know its limits.
My friends at the NCC very well know that COSON is an exceptional Nigerian organization, very effective, transparent, and accountable – the flagship of the Nigerian copyright system respected across the world. COSON and NCC had a fantastic working relationship until Buhari came to power and appointed Abubakar Malami, his eventual son-in-law, as Attorney-General of the Federation.
In the typical African way, to please his friends and help them milk the system, Malami set out to destroy a copyright infrastructure that was moving the Nigerian creative industry forward. The people at the NCC told the AGF in writing that what he was asking them to do was wrong and unlawful, but he ordered them to go ahead. I have copies of the memos exchanged between the NCC and the AGF. In fear and trepidation, the staff of the NCC felt that they had no choice but to be seen to be doing the hatchet job of Malami whom everybody in government was afraid of. Do not forget that COSON filed a 10 billion Naira suit against the NCC which subsists. Now that Malami is gone, it is my hope that common sense will prevail, and COSON and NCC will begin to rebuild the fractured relationship.
Q Has this judgement renewed your belief in the judiciary?
I never lost faith in the Nigerian judiciary. While there are some inefficient and corrupt judges, there are many judges doing excellent work and I see them in courts across the country. It is thanks to these judges that I survived the continuous brutal attack against me during the tenure of the immediate past administration. The fact that COSON stands today is because of our faith in the judiciary.
Have you read the judgment of Justice I.E. Ekwo in the Calabar Carnival matter? It is visionary, well thought through and unimpeachable. Several times, I sat in court and listened to Justice Ekwo. It will take some doing to overturn a judgment by I.E. Ekwo. He is intellectually deep, sound, fearless, fast yet thorough and completely in charge of his court. He is one of the best I have seen in the country.
I thank the Almighty and our judges for the great victory we have achieved and hope that our friends at Government House, Calabar will not once again delay the resolution of this matter.