Milk-Man vs Sugar-Man

No, that’s not a movie with unusually lame superheroes. Bear with me. I wrote recently about the copyright reform in South Africa. It led me to find out more, it was astonishing and oddly connected to my home country Sweden.

The proposed new copyright legislation was sent back to parliament by president Cyril Ramaphosa earlier this summer. That was a wise move, had it passed things would have become very weird.

Irony: part of the reason for the copyright reform was to be part of the international internet treaties. But the World Intellectual Property Organisation (you know, the UN institution) pointed to the lack of protection for so-called Technical Protection Measures: a catch-all phrase for the various kinds of log-ins, watermarks, copy-protections, server verifications and so on that digital content services apply to give the paying audience access, but not the free-riders. That’s right: “new services” – the only common ground in all fights over digital copyright, would not be possible in the proposed legislation.

Milk-Man: another part of the proposal was to limit the assignment for music to 25 years, after that the protection would be up for re-negotiation. Ironic by Alanis Morrissette was one of the top songs in 1995. With the proposed rules, the contract would have expired this year. Except that song is hardly forgotten, rather it plays often on radio stations all over, so the commercial interest remains. What happens if the contract parties cannot agree on new terms? Funny you would ask, in that case it is possible that a minister of the government would decide. Yes, you heard me. Here comes the milk-man: in the 1960s in Sweden, milk farmers did not set the price of their milk, instead, in its infinite wisdom, the government decided the price of a milk cartoon. Sweden moved on from that model. South Africa thought to bring it back.

Small wonder the creative community in South Africa pushed back. The only exception was the TV soap actors who were hoping for better compensation. Oh… and the global internet companies too. I guess they wanted free content.

What was that about Sugar-Man? Funny you would ask. Sixto Rodriguez was an American folk music artist with modest success. His songs were big hits in South Africa in the 1970s, but Rodriguez only found out in the late 1990s that he was famous and started touring. Sugar Man was his biggest hit. This story inspired the documentary Searching for Sugar Man which won an Oscar in 2013. The director Malik Bendjelloul (sadly passed in 2014) is Swedish so the spotlight was shared between the US, South-Africa and Sweden. Does anyone need a better case for the need of globally connected copyright?

Now South Africa has given itself the chance to make a good copyright reform.