MTN Nigeria taken to court in 'biggest copyright lawsuit ever in Africa'

The Copyright Society of Nigeria (COSON) is taking telecoms giant MTN to court for 16 billion naira ($80 million). The lawsuit is a result of the alleged failure of the company to pay royalties to deserving parties.

Chinedu Chukwuji, Tony Okoroji; COSON GM and Chairman. Photo:FabMag
Chinedu Chukwuji, Tony Okoroji; COSON GM and Chairman. Photo:FabMag

The announcement follows the recent partnership between COSON and the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry (IFPI). The partnership propelled the body, which is Nigeria’s only government approved collective management organization for musical works and sound recordings, to restate its commitment to fighting for the rights of people working in the Nigerian entertainment industry.

According to an official statement by COSON, the body chose to head for the law court when repeated entreaties to MTN failed. “COSON has taken several steps, engaged in massive media advertising, organized various programmes, devoted enormous time and resources in appealing to MTN to obtain the appropriate licences and pay requisite royalties for the musical works and sound recordings deployed by the company, but MTN has behaved as if it is above the law and no attempt made by COSON has got MTN to meet its lawful obligations,” reads the statement.

The statement continues: “Supported by numerous exhibits, the Plaintiff in the Statement of Claim said that while in recent years COSON has collected and distributed several millions of naira received from various users of music to its members, affiliates and assignors as copyright royalty, not one kobo (cent) has been collected from MTN, which touts itself as the biggest distributor of music in Nigeria and falsely holds itself out as a good friend of the Nigerian music industry.”

The lawsuit has been described by COSON as the “biggest copyright lawsuit ever in the continent of Africa”. COSON is alleging that “for every Caller Ring Back Tune (CRBT) sold by MTN, the defendant keeps a whopping 60 to 70% of the income to itself, leaving just about 30 to 40% of the revenue to be fought over by the Value Added Service (VAS) provider, the record label, the performer, etc.”

The inefficiency of this formula was also raised by the popstar D’Banj in an address at the recent Nigerian Entertainment Conference in Lagos.

The lawsuit comes at a worrying time for MTN. In October 2015 the company was ordered to pay a N1.04 trillion naira ($5.2 billion) fine by the Nigerian Communications Commission for not deactivating unregistered subscribers from the network. The fine led to the resignation of Sifiso Dabengwa, MTN’s Group CEO. The company is also said to owe taxes in Cameroon. In South Africa, meanwhile, where MTN's headquarters are located, the company was earlier this year accused of failing to pay royalties since 2013 by the Composers, Authors and Publishers Association (CAPASSO). Although MTN South Africa denied the charge, saying that “MTN has never disputed any royalty rates with CAPASSO or any other collecting society,” and insisting that it had requested a revised invoice, they moved swiftly to settle their outstanding debts.

The latest allegation by COSON is likely to do further damage to MTN's reputation, if not its finances. 

Commenting on the recent development, COSON Chairman Tony Okoroji said the body is determined to defend intellectual property. “We are resolute that the labour of Nigerian musicians and investors in the music industry, who toil every day to make people happy, will no longer be in vain,” he said. “They cannot make people happy and be sad themselves. Anyone intending to exploit their sweat to serve his own purpose has COSON to deal with.

"The recent crash in the price of crude oil should be a lesson that Nigeria can no longer afford to waste her tremendous intellectual property assets," continued Okoroji. "Our music and our movies - in great demand everywhere in the world - must count for something. They should contribute significantly to the nation’s GDP and provide jobs for hundreds of thousands of our citizens… We have asked our lawyers to go on a ‘rampage’. Our brief to them is clear: there will be no untouchables and no sacred cows; no retreat, no surrender!”

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