Copyright, huh, what is it good for?

BitDepth 946 for July 22

 Veteran masman Peter Minshall speaks from the audience at the National Seminar on Copyright in the Carnival Industry hosted by the NCC last week at the Grandstand, Queen’s Park Savannah. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.
Veteran masman Peter Minshall speaks from the audience at the National Seminar on Copyright in the Carnival Industry hosted by the NCC last week at the Grandstand, Queen’s Park Savannah. Photograph by Mark Lyndersay.

Over the first fourteen hours of the National Seminar on Copyright in the Carnival Industry, I’d had no problems keeping my silence, writing notes about the various presentations and taking photographs of the presenters.

This was, after all, a seminar series I’d been hounding the NCC to host for years now, something to provide a definitive statement on the issues underpinning Carnival’s copyright and the problems that have arisen in recent years related to its policing.

I’d watched Peter Minshall keep rising repeatedly to offer the perspectives of a creator in Carnival, driven by an unmatched passion for Carnival. I heard another contribution from a traditional masquerader who seemed nonplussed by the general tone of the event, which didn’t speak very directly to the very personal issues that arise from copyright protections in the very muddled situation that Carnival has made of rights and licensing.

I think it was when I heard that elderly mas man, an individual in every sense of the word, someone who designed, built and performed his singular masquerade very year, grappling with one of the great Catch 22s of the modern Carnival era, the role of the NCBA in convening the event and its competitions.

For those who don’t follow the minutiae of Carnival governance, the National Carnival Bandleaders Association is the only body of bandleaders formally recognised by the NCC and by extension, the Government of Trinidad and Tobago.

There are two other bandleader associations, both of which exist in polar opposition to the NCBA, but at Carnival, in order to parade and compete, all of their members must be members of the NCBA to cross the judging points.

That means that for at least one critical week out of each year, the NCBA can, with absolute accuracy, point out that its membership consists of every bandleader in T&T. There is, therefore, no reason for the NCC to recognise any other coalition of bandleaders. Joseph Heller would be impressed, I think.

It was somewhere around this time that I realised that I wasn’t taking notes about what was being said. I was writing what was running through my head, and it wasn’t pretty.

Eventually, I crossed the wall between reporting and participating to point out, rather sharply, something I’ve written about before at greater length, the thorough destruction of the public record of Carnival over two decades through a blunt force application of copyright principles that are, at best, dubious.

The short version goes like this. Twenty years ago bandleaders decided to levy a “copyright fee” on the publication of magazines featuring their Carnival costumes. Publishers capitulated, declining to pursue any potential that a case upholding the public interest value of such documents might have held.

Instead, they began to craft magazines that would sell better, in order to recoup the added costs. 

Now, a Carnival magazine features cover to cover bikini clad babes and little else, recording little beyond the frontlines of the most popular bands.

I have a theory that today’s Carnival is the result of two decades worth of a public record that seeks the sexy and skimpy. We get the Carnival that we see.

Copyright is not just a right, it is power. As a tool of intellectual property protection, it returns the value of creation to authors, but guided by minds clouded by short-term profit, it has already proven to be a destructive power to suppress.

I exercise my copyright quite robustly but not without consideration. But I’ve found it’s pointless chasing after every fete promo for a boat ride and there’s little value to be had in attempting to extract cash from students hoping to improve their academic papers.

Not all value is enumerated in money, and the loss of such value is often felt quite sharply in ways that can be surprising.

For Carnival, that loss has been devastating. If we aren’t careful in our deliberations of both the impact and power of copyright licensing in the festival, we stand a good chance of razing what’s left to the ground and salting its remains.