UK Judge hears copyright case in Havana

Campaign News | Monday, 26 September 2005

US company is claiming rights to famous Cuban songs

HAVANA Sep 26 - A British High Court judge heard testimony on Monday from the heirs of the Cuban composers of 14 songs dating back to the 1930s in a copyright case brought against Cuba by an American company.

Justice John Lindsay shed his wig and gown in the tropical heat of Havana, where he held hearings after an attempt to listen to the ageing witnesses by video link failed in May.

The test case over U.K. publishing rights for the songs could determine the rights to millions of dollars in royalties from traditional Cuban music, which has enjoyed a worldwide revival since the very successful 1997 Buena Vista Social Club album.

The U.S.-based Peer International, which signed up hundreds of Cuban musicians in the heady days of the Mambo and the Cha Cha Cha of the 1940s and 1950s, sued Cuba's state-run Editora Musical de Cuba (EMC) for copyright violation.

British lawyers acting for the Cubans said many of the musicians had been treated unscrupulously and were paid "a few pesos and maybe a drink of rum."

The five composers of the songs claimed by Peer International are all dead, but their impoverished heirs stand to benefit.

The company said royalties were paid until Cuban President Fidel Castro seized power in a 1959 revolution and the United States enforced sanctions against Cuba.

In testimony on Monday, witnesses were questioned about Peer International's efforts to re-sign contracts with Cuban composers or their heirs after the Buena Vista boom took off and songs long forgotten recovered their commercial value.

The company's representative was a former EMC employee who now lives in the United States.

"I received very small amounts of money," said 83-year-old Evelio Landa Martinez, who wrote the 1955 hit "The Mulatas of the Cha Cha Cha."

The British judge will hear a dozen witnesses over the next three days at Villa Lita, a Havana mansion owned by a wealthy Italian marble importer before Castro's revolution.

Cuban musicians see the landmark case protecting their interests and their country's culture.

"The copyright of any composer must be respected, because it is our cultural heritage," said Salvador Repilado, son of the late Buena Vista singer Compay Segundo.

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