Copyrights, royalties and music piracy in Ethiopia

By Elias Fikru

This text provides an overview of the related fields of copyrights, royalties and piracy in the Ethiopian music industry.

Music shop vendor in Addis Ababa. Photo courtesy of Elias Fikru
Music shop vendor in Addis Ababa. Photo courtesy of Elias Fikru

The copyright system is a central component of the creative industries, including suppliers of computer software, movies, books, newspapers and magazines or recorded music among others. While computer software has developed rapidly in recent decades in spite of extensive unauthorized copying, the private copying of music since the late 1990s, with the rapid diffusion of digital copying technologies such as file-sharing networks as well as CD- and DVD-burners, has adversely affected the music industry. Unlike the software industry, digital copying in the music industry (or specifically the recording industry) results direclty in great falls in revenues for right holders, at least within the primary market where copies are sold to end consumers. Ethiopia is no exception: with a plethora of online blogs sharing Ethiopian music, artists in the country are the biggest losers, even though their work is able to reach out to more people. 


The origins of copyright protection in Ethiopia date back to the enactment of a codified penal law and civil law in 1957 and 1960 respectively. Even though the 1957 penal code was made to impose imprisonment or fine on a person committing copyright infringement, these laws were not adequate to adequately address issues of modern copyright protection. The government therefore enacted the Copyright and Neighboring Rights Protection Proclamation No. 410/2004[i] in 2004 as the country's first comprehensive legal framework. The enactment of this law was seen as a new chapter for the emergence of the copyright industry in Ethiopia.

However, even with the enactment of the new proclamation, the actual enforcement of copyrights has not yet been done effectively by the Ethiopian government. In 2010, six years after the proclamation came into place, the Ethiopian entertainment industry was shocked when an offender who had falsified Sony Music’s logo to bootleg CDs and DVDs was exonerated. Despite material valued at more than eight billion Birr (about US$370 million) being seized from one Zelalem Fisseha, the Federal Supreme Court of Ethiopia let him walk free.[ii]

In 2003 the Ethiopian Intellectual Property Office (EIPO) was established to provide legal protection for intellectual property (IP) rights, supported by justice organs like the police, public prosecutors and relevant groups like the Ethiopian Musicians Association (EMA). The EIPO is mainly involved in formulating legal and policy frameworks for the protection of copyrights, creating awareness in the general public, and building capacity among right holders, law enforcing agencies and policy makers. The EIPO also strives to maintain international cooperation for the protection of copyrights in collaboration with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), of which Ethiopia has been a member since 1998.

Copyright protection for musical works ideally has two dimensions, with both composers and performers being protected. However, this is not always the case in Ethiopia. Legal protection in the Ethiopian music industry has typically concentrated on singers’ rights rather than the composers. Most of the time it is the singer who is considered the exclusive owner of copyright over a given piece of music. Over the past two decades, however, the practice of recognizing the "backstage" music creators has gradually taken root.   


Royalties are a relatively recent phenomenon in Ethiopia's music and copyright industries. Until late 2014, there was no legal and institutional framework for the collection and distribution of royalties in Ethiopia. This was due to the absence of any legal provisions for a royalty system or the establishment of a collective management society empowered by the state to collect and distribute royalties under the 2004 copyright law.

This gap in the law was a hindrance to the right holders, who could still not fully enjoy the financial rewards of their musical works. This caused both the right holders and the EIPO to work on an amendment of the 2004 copyright law in order to establish a royalty collection system. This amendment was ratified by Ethiopia' parliament in 2014, resulting in the enactment of the Copyright and Neighboring Rights Protection (Amendment) Proclamation No. 872/2014 [iii]. This newly enacted law has finally introduced a royalty system that makes provision for the establishment of the first functional collective management society in the country.

Accordingly, the establishment of the Ethiopian Copyright and Neighboring Collective Management Society is currently underway. Since March 2015, right holders have organized a national ad hoc committee to facilitate the establishment of the society. The new society will be registered and acquire its independent legal status from the EIPO, after fulfilling the necessary formalites such as submitting official paperwork and a list of its members. The society will be mandated to issue licenses to users and collect royalties by representing all Ethiopian rights holders. The society is expected to collect royalties in all copyright sectors: music, film, books, dramatic works, visual arts and photography. The society is also empowered to prepare royalty tariffs, to then be submitted to the EIPO for approval. Upon approval of the EIPO, it will collect royalties, as per the tariff, from users and distribute them to right holders accordingly.

Though the new royalty system is not yet fully in place, the contribution of the Ethiopian copyright industry towards the national economy is already considerable. According to a study commissioned by World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) in 2014, Ethiopia's copyright industry (which is dominated by the music industry) is found to contribute 4.73% to the country's GDP. It also has a share of 4.2% in creating employment opportunities for Ethiopians.


Despite the above measures, music piracy remains a critical challenge facing the music industry in Ethiopia. Even though the law has set several enforcement measures to combat piracy, the distribution of pirated copies is still a headache for the industry. Piracy is committed in different forms: for example through the sale and distribution of pirated CDs, the sharing of artists' work on portable devices, as well as over the internet. A study conducted by EIPO on the level of copyright infringement at a national level indicates that the infringement rate was 58.6% for the year 2014. Out of this, the infringement rate on musical works was 80.33% - far higher than that of films, which was at 49.05%. This affirms that Ethiopia's music sector is particularly susceptible to piracy.   

Despite the numerous challenges affecting the Ethiopian music industry, the government and right holders have been actively involved in several measures to combat piracy problem. There are efforts by the police to undertake national anti-piracy operations every year in order to take legal action against people who are involved in reproducing or distributing pirated music. However, ongoing technological advancements are still a challenge - as the various forms of piracy evolve with the changing technology, solutions to the problem need to constantly adapt in order to keep up.

[ii] Tamene, B. 2010. "Copyright verdict ‘shocks’ Entertainment industry".15 April 2010. Ethiopian News. <>


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