A Perspective from Cuba on Pirating and Access to Culture

Naty Gabriela Gonzalez*

Photo:. Juan Suarez

HAVANA TIMES — I ask the man at the CD and DVD stand whether he carries any films by Alexander Sokurov. He asks: “By who?” I reply: “Alexander Sokurov, the director of Russian Arc.”

“Oh, no, I don’t have any Russian films,” the young man kindly replies. “But I do have a lot of good movies. I’ve been selling a lot of copies of a Cuban film, Vestido de novia (“Wedding Dress”). People have been buying it quite a lot and it’s good. The actors from Fernando Perez’ Clandestinos (“Clandestine”) are in it, you know.”

I make a gesture expressing interest. “Can I please see it?” The young man plays the DVD and I notice it is a very poor quality copy. I approach and ask him why the image quality is so bad.

“Well, that’s the copy they brought me. But the movie is good, don’t mind the quality, it’s good,” the vendor claims. “I’ll be back later,” I say to him. “Okay. We have the latest vampire movies made in the States, and those are really good quality copies.”

This is one of many such conversations I’ve had in Cuba and Peru, my native country, after approaching a stand selling “pirated” movies. Movie pirating seems to be an issue of concern in the film world, but it is not so simple and clear-cut .

Copyright laws protect the intellectual property rights of the production house – be it a record label, a film producer or a book publisher – and it must ensure that artistic products aren’t copied or distributed in the black market and that their authors receive proper royalties for their work. It consists of a series of laws applied to works as the identity and property of the author.

This law dates back to the mid-18th century. Following the emergence of the printing press – and consequently the mass reproduction of literary works – authors were deprived of rights over their creations. This law acknowledges the author as such and grants them rights over their promotion, distribution and sale, as well as over the reproduction of products derived from the work, entitling them to royalties for the reproduction of their pieces. The law varies from country to country.

This phenomenon has very specific characteristics in Cuba: access to the Internet and new means of communication is restricted and people must look for alternative ways of accessing that great wealth of information.

This is a very controversial issue, particularly in our country. Because of the embargo imposed by the US government, Cuba has had restricted access to information – to books, music, films, software, operating systems and other products. The government’s response has been that of the so-called “cracking” of all types of software.

Years later, with the arrival of new means of communication (the Internet, most significantly), information travels at incalculable speed. Millions of people across the planet communicate with one another in a matter of minutes, all sorts of information is exchanged and publicized and individuals lead lives that are ultimately more virtual than they are real.

This phenomenon has very specific characteristics in Cuba: access to the Internet and new means of communication is restricted and people must look for alternative ways of accessing that great wealth of information.

The solution comes in the form of “pirating.” Ninety-nine (if not one hundred) percent of the music, movies and information a Cuban of any age, social status or tastes has is passed on from USB memory to USB memory, as people say, by a friend, neighbor or classmate.

Now, how can a Cuban author avoid the pirating of their works and ensure their rights are protected when nearly 70 % of all programs aired by Cuban television are pirated? We don’t pay for the rights of any foreign films, TV series, soaps or documentaries, as most of these are produced in the United States and we would not be able to buy them.

Photo: Juan Suarez

As of December 17, 2014, changes are expected in this regard, but pirating is already part of Cuban culture, and it has even been institutionalized. No clause in the CD and DVD sales license granted the self-employed stipulate that the works they sell must be originals.

So, how can we expect this vendor to answer for the poor quality of a copy of a Cuban movie he’s selling, when he is merely the intermediary of another intermediary, working for a supplier, and selling these films is his livelihood?

This person is not responsible for the problem. The real question is: how did he get his hands on that copy, what measures did the production company implement to prevent the copy from leaking out to the streets?

The production company obviously didn’t give the vendor the copy. It is not a question of fining the vendor for selling pirated materials, as, under the law, we would then have to fine the State, the Cuban Radio and Television Institute (ICRT) and the Cuban Film Art and Industry Institute (ICAIC) for distributing materials without paying copyright royalties.

Some of the phenomena taking place as a result of the information fence around Cuba are worthy of mention. The “weekly package” is a true sensation that has revolutionized access to information in Cuba.

Its creators, who have been producing the package for 8 years now, obtain information through different channels and from every imaginable place. They carry out a careful selection process, edit the materials on a daily basis and, at the end of the week, produce a terabyte of materials that can be distributed across the island the following week.

I know the package is distributed beyond the capital and that it reaches provinces in the interior, where it is enriched with local materials. What’s more, it has even gone beyond Cuban borders: it is viewed in Europe and universities in the United States, owing to the quality of the materials selected.

It is a daring, creative, austere and – of course – risky way of making information available on a massive scale, in view of the country’s situation, and it demonstrates the capabilities and human potential that still develops in Cuba despite all difficulties.

How are we to deny authors remuneration, after all of the effort (both financial and human) devoted to the production of their work, while not denying the people access to their work?

Intellectual property rights have become almost obsolete around the world, as all information is available on Internet clouds (for those who have Internet access, of course). In addition, it is a restrictive and exclusivist law, as a person who receives a salary of 250 Cuban pesos (12.50 USD) is not going to buy an original DVD at its market price. They either spend the money on food or buy the film. This is a worldwide phenomenon.

The poorest sectors of the population cannot spend money to buy an original copy of a film and therefore are denied access to information, remaining in absolute ignorance. This creates the endless vicious circle that excludes certain social classes from access to this information and the ability to become educated.

I am not speaking in economic terms. I am referring to spiritual realization and personal growth through access to culture. From this perspective, it is therefore a means of privatizing human expression, of creating a cultural monopoly to which only a few have access.

How are we to deny authors remuneration, after all of the effort (both financial and human) devoted to the production of their work, while not denying the people access to their work?

Copyleft conditions are being applied in many parts of the world in response to this. Argentina has been applying it for some years now, and its chief aim is to make culture more broadly accessible. Making culture available to all consists in respecting the authorship of the creator and ensuring he/she receives a percentage for their work, not the total royalty amount, as copyright laws would entitle them to. The price of “copylefted” products is lower and more affordable.

It appears to be a highly radical and humanistic measure. To what extent are artists willing to sacrifice their profits in the interests of democratizing culture? Here, it all depends on how one views art, whether one lives off it or lives for it.
(*) Naty Gabriela Gonzalez Calderon was born in Cusco, Peru in 1984 of a Cuban father and Peruvian mother. A Cuban citizen, she lives currently in Havana.

13 thoughts on “A Perspective from Cuba on Pirating and Access to Culture

  • Speaking as a U.S. author of a book about Cuba, I want my work to circulate there, and I don’t care about royalties. If it were possible, I’d instruct the press that is publishing my work to give away as many free copies as possible–in the U.S. as well as Cuba. If somebody on the island scans my entire book and puts the pdf on a USB drive, power to them. If they sell it with the “weekly packet,” great–glad they can make a little money to resolver. To me, it’s not about the money or my intellectual property rights. It’s about the circulation of ideas. (I recognize that my relative economic comfort makes my insouciance possible.) I have my criticisms about many aspects of revolutionary policies, but the notion that access to culture is a right is one that I wholeheartedly support.

  • WTF?! …and who pays you? Although I disagree with you and think you misguided, I’ve never thought of you as any kind of troll. I would appreciate the same courtesy, thank you very much.

    ….And no sir, your arguments don’t go very far. At the end of the day only results count. And I see communism with precious few results.

  • Same ol same ol. Proofs in the pudding, as they say. Please show me a communist system that has worked. …..exactly!

  • These trolling jobs can’t be very satisfying; folks like Moses, Uninformed Consent and CubaSourpuss might get paid for it (if only in their own sense of self-importance), but arguing with us lefties is like arguing with the sun, the wind, the ocean and the other elements.

  • Fortunately, I learn from my past mistakes. You seem to go on-and-on in your negativity. You might as well say that capitalism works until “it runs out of other people’s money”, as it did in 2008, and will, undoubtedly again, since the U.S. has been living on credit for the past several decades. Finally, the cards will be maxed out and they won’t be able to be shifted around to other cards. It won’t be a pretty sight when this happens, but at least then the U.S. middle-class and working class will finally wise up.

  • As with most communists you have a warped sense of morality. You give credence al refran “communism works until it runs out of other people’s money. ….O hope you continue to get “burned” buying pirated CDs

  • There you go. ….why should someone have to raise your salary? Why not raise your own salary by finding a better paying job or starting your own company. That’s what Americans do. If the price is too high then don’t buy the product. The seller will have to lower his price if no one is buying his DVDs. Thinking as you do only leads toward dependency. When that happens we become a beggar nation like Cuba.

  • Insults and innuendo are the pseudo-arguments of those that have no real arguments. Please refrain from abuse.

  • Sticks and stones. …..

  • Yes, perhaps like the CEO of Gravity Payments, Inc. other CEO’s should all raise the salaries of their employees to $70,000/yr. Then everyone could afford to purchase CD’s and DVD’s at full price. In the meantime, in between time, I’ll continue to obtain them through alternative means. Incidentally, I have no problem with the quality of most of my CD’s and DVD’S, both used and pirated, which I purchase through on-line sources (and these are the only sources where I can obtain most of the esoteric art films I like). In Cuba, on the other hand, I have been burned too many times purchasing CD’s and DVD’s which are defective. Many are available in their entirety on YouTube, though sometimes you have to view them w/subtitles, or dubbed in a third language, etc. Most First World producers of “entertainment product” are just too greedy and, as a consequence, they fully deserve to have their “product” err, “reappropriated.”

  • You mean be a troll and get paid for it?

  • Cuba is the only country I know that has made of property rights piracy a licensed activity. It is part of the list of activities and independent can exercise if duly licensed.
    That means the regime profits from piracy.

  • What is it about some progressives who seem to always seek equality by limiting outcomes. Why not focus on increasing opportunities? If poor people can’t afford original DVD prices, why not consider raising salaries or developing alternative production capabilities that deliver original DVDs at lower prices? If poor Cubans want to live the way I live and enjoy the culture that I enjoy, then they should work as a I work.

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