Watch Out for the Corporate Publishers

If We Really Want to Promote Reading

Yasmin S. Portales Machado

Alan Story at the Cuba Book Fair.

HAVANA TIMES — Last week, the 2013 Havana International Book Fair Cuba featured a presentation titled “The Contradictions of Copyrights: Essential Elements for the Global South,” led by British law professor Alan Story.

This presentation was part of the “Gathering of Publishers and Literary Translators,” a regular event of the book fair.

At the same time there was clear continuity between this and exchanges organized by the Latin American Literary Agency in the Professional Book Exhibit, where heated discussions took place concerning e-books and the challenges to promoting Cuban books and reading habits.

Alan Story is a professor of intellectual property law at Kent Law School. His main research topic is intellectual property, especially critical approaches to patent and copyright law.

He also deals with the conflicts that emerge in copyright law in the globalized South – the subject to which he dedicated the book “An Alternative Manual on National Laws and International Standards on Copyright in the Global South: Eighteen Questions and Answers.”

His presentation analyzed five cases of alleged copyrights violations. These involved the following:

– A little shop next to the University of New Delhi that was sued for photocopying textbooks;

–  Argentinean university professor Horacio Potel, who almost spent almost six years in prison for putting texts of Nietzsche, Derrida and other philosophers on line so that students could study them;

– Bob Marley’s family, which is demanding control over the profits from his music (though a New York court ruled that until 2031 all profits generated from his creations should go to the Universal Music corporation);

– The World Intellectual Property Organization, which opposes discounts on books in Braille or audio format or their sharing between several countries, thereby preventing literacy of people who are blind or otherwise visually impaired;

– Richard O’Dwyer, who had a website to promote films based in the United Kingdom. He was arrested in a joint operation of British and US police because his actions were crimes in the United States.

Through these cases of lawsuits for copyright violations or disputes over ownership rights to earnings, Alan Story introduced critical information about the current nature of the system of intellectual property laws.

In particular, he drew attention to the US’s extraterritorial actions. This was surprising since it’s generally believed that these methods are limited to matters related to oil or unruly leaders.

MINCULT has a national reading promotion program that involves numerous actors from the government and civil society, but the perception among publishers and teachers is that youth don’t care much for the materials in public libraries.

The conclusions were clear: publisher associations (companies that profit from knowledge) defend copyrights because it’s a practical legal framework for commerce, for turning intellectual works into commodities.

Therefore it’s true what we often intuit: except in special cases such as J.K. Rowling or Michael Jackson, to say that today’s copyright system works on behalf of authors is like saying the wage system was created for the benefit of the proletariat.

Due to time constraints, the presentation couldn’t be discussed, but Alan Story appeared at the Professional Book Exhibit the next day for a questions-and-answer session.

A Cuban says

Cubaliteraria obtained an exclusive interviewed on this issue with essayist Rinaldo Acosta, who agreed to share his impressions about this thesis.

The Copyright Act is the hub of all problems confronted in the promotion of reading – which effects the South generally, and especially in a country like Cuba, where books are social goods.

The cases presented at this conference clearly revealed the logic of capital. Whether it’s how these affect Bob Marley’s family, the little photocopy store in New Delhi or the download site for studies in Buenos Aires, this logic is creating a disaster.

Such threats are supported by international courts and consequently leave cultural entities in precarious situations. How can we promote reading without offering good books? …without printing and distributing the best of contemporary literature?

Due to copyright laws, we in Cuba are prevented from distributing Harry Potter, The Lord of the Rings or Twilight. Such works — which have raised reading rates among children and adolescents around the world — can’t be used in our country. It’s known that the habit of reading is acquired, mostly in one’s formative years; once a person becomes an adult it’s very difficult to stimulate their interest in reading.

It’s important that we become aware of these issues, especially editors. How can one say they stand for culture and defend those laws created for turning ideas into commodities? To merely repeat that piracy is bad is to become an accomplice to these ideas.

True, we in Cuba would become pirates if we created a consortium to assemble and distribute those books for the entire continent to make a profit. But would this be the case if we were to sell these books at subsidized prices in our own country?

Reading, costs and habits

One of the endemic problems of the Cuban publishing world is the payment of royalties. Generally, foreign writings are published that are either in the public domain or whose writers are sympathetic to the Cuban government, since the virtually free distribution of publications here means they generate few profits. The Cuban Book Institute and the Ministry of Culture (MINCULT) have found no mechanisms to evade the marked politicization of these arrangements.

For most readers in Cuba, many new books in the sciences, essays and fiction are only accessible from foreign publishers that attend the International Book Fair or at bookstores that sell them in hard currency.

Argentinean university professor Horacio Potel, who almost spent almost six years in prison for putting texts of Nietzsche, Derrida and other philosophers on line so that students could study them

During the February book fair, many exhibitors sell their works at rock-bottom prices by international standards, mostly between $5 and $10 USD, but these are still prohibitive prices in Cuba ($5 USD is equivalent to over a week’s salary here), therefore this forces many book lovers to save up all year.

MINCULT has a national reading promotion program that involves numerous actors from the government and civil society, but the perception among publishers and teachers is that youth don’t care much for the materials in public libraries.

The widespread use of electronic devices, sales of CDs and DVDs, and free file exchanges through USB flash drives have generated a parallel dynamic of the formation of consumer tastes and an increase in the generation gap.

At the Professional Book Exhibition on February 17, writer Miguel Mejides drew attention to what he calls “the technological delay of the reading promotion program.” As he stated, “We won’t win the battle for the younger generation with paper books, but with e-books.” But as we know, the Cuban economy is far from being able to offer tablets and smart phones at affordable prices.

Up until 2012, only three Cuban entities produced reading applications in electronic formats on a regular basis: Cubaliteraria, Citmatel and Cubarte. Nevertheless the marginalization of their products was evident in their lack of public presentations at the book fair.

Cubaliteraria is a website devoted to cultural themes (events, institutions, personalities) and books that can be downloaded for free. On February 16, Cubaliteraria director Pablo Rigal announced that they would make available a collection of fantasy books. The publisher hopes to break into the niche audience that follows Cuban authors of fantasy works.

Cubarte maintains an online library of free books and produces Cuban cultural videos. Although its prices are well above those of printed works, MINCULT offers discounts so that copies can be purchased by libraries and other social centers.

Citmatel produces a wide range of videos and DVDs whose topics range from health (e.g. a parenting book) to children’s TV series (“The Yellow Umbrella”).

Last week at the book fair, the Ruth Casa Publishing House (Cuba-Panama) launched a diverse series of e-books for sale online. These included authors such as Daniel Chavarria and Fidel Castro, and it’s expected that the reaction at its digital store will be positive.

It remains to be seen how Cuba will be able to promote reading and keep afloat its vast network publication management, publishing, production and distribution in the midst of the “updating of the nation’s economic model.”

Debates such as those concerning the capitalist nature of copyright laws are absolutely relevant.


2 thoughts on “Watch Out for the Corporate Publishers

  • What an odd and confusing article.

    I presume copyright exists in Cuba. Otherwise, why is the Cuban government a signatory to several international treaties to protect copyright? Why is Cuba a member of the World Intellectual Property Organization. Cuba’s membership can be readily confirmed by checking the WIPO website.

  • How exactly do copyright laws prevent Harry Potter & LOTR from being distributed in Cuba? Spanish language editions of those books are available. Are they not for sale in Cuba? Can a Cuban library buy copies for lending?

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