Fidel Castro was the original intellectual pirate.
Long before Napster, Megaupload and other sites began trading in copyrighted material without paying royalties, the Cuban leader was using the tools of the state to copy and widely distribute the works of others without compensation. He even went as far as abolishing copyright laws in the country, calling all writings and music “an unremunerated gift on the part of artists to the people.”
The radical system meant free textbooks for students ,but kept millions of dollars of royalty payments from flowing into the country. Less than a decade after copyright was abolished, the country reintroduced intellectual property right protections and began to generate income from its vibrant arts and cultural community.
“The abolition of copyright resulted in artistic defections,” Univ. of Texas Professor Robin Moore wrote in 2006 book Music and Revolution: Cultural Change in Socialist Cuba. “Composers had grown accustomed to special financial recognition for their creative work” and “could not be persuaded that someone capable of writing hit songs deserved the same salary as a secretary or accountant, or a less talented musician.”
Prior to the 1959 socialist revolution that swept Castro to power, Cuban artists and musicians received royalty payments through the Sociedad Nacional de Autores Cubanos. After the revolution, the group’s leadership was charged with embezzlement and disbanded, replaced by the revolutionary-minded Cuban Institute of Musical Rights. In Music and Revolution, Moore explained that by the time the ICDM was set up, many of the country’s recording and publishing executives had fled the country and were operating in exile in the United States and Mexico. When the Union de Escritores y Artistas Cubanos voted to abolish copyright in 1967, many of the country’s exiled music producers simply stopped making royalty to payments to artists on the island. Even Castro’s regime took a hit once the payments ceased.
“The government eventually lost a great deal of money as a result of the termination of licensing agreements,” Moore wrote. “By the late 1960s, companies abroad began reissuing Cuban LPs without compensating their Cuban authors or even formally recognizing them because they were no longer required to do so.”
Some record labels felt sympathy for Cuban musicians caught in the revolution but were legally barred from sending money to the island because of the economic embargo. Author Pamela Maria Smorkaloff believes that Cuba’s decision to do away with copyright law had more to do with textbooks than music.
“In the tensest moments of the blockade, respecting copyright regulations would have resulted in cutting the nation off from the conceptual, educational and scientific tools desperately needed to prepare an entire generation,” she wrote in her book Readers and Writers in Cuba: A Social History of Print Culture. According to Smorkaloff, shortly after abolishing copyright laws, Castro ordered the nation’s printers to begin reprinting textbooks and instructional manuals and to distribute the writings at little or no cost throughout the island.
“The State was aware of all that was involved in the decision to do away with the payments stipulated by copyright,” Smorkaloff wrote, likening the initiative to creating society’s largest library.
“Leaders felt art should be offered freely to the people,” according to Moore, “that it should not exploit them with fees that would end up in the pockets of a single composer; that is should be a spontaneous gift. Copyright, from such a perspective, represented everything that was wrong about the capitalist system.”
The results of Cuba’s ban on copyrights were mixed — while some musicians flourished under the socialist system that allowed them to pursue their artistic endeavors without financial constraints, Moore reports that compositions and creative output greatly waned and many of the country’s musicians and artists like Osvaldo Farres, Olga Guillot and Ernesto Lecuona chose to leave the country.
Despite the political turmoil, fascination with Cuba and interest in Cuban music continued to grow and the sale of recorded music by American and Mexican companies generated profits for publishers and labels who didn’t have to pay royalties. Realizing that the country was missing out on millions of dollars in licensing, Castro reinstated copyright laws in 1975.
“Domestic royalties typically come in the form of a single modest payment for a given work, however, and are not directly linked to radio play or sales figures,” Moore wrote. “State agencies retain the right to use pieces copyrighted though ACDAM as frequently as they choose without additional remuneration.”
Today, Cuba’s copyright laws are governed by the Agencia Cubana de Derecho de Autor Musical (ACDAM) which collects about $3 million a year in royalty payments for Cuban artists. ACDAM is a member of the International Confederation of Societies of Authors and Composers.