The Guardian, UK
Wednesday May 25, 2005
A high court judge in London today said he would travel to Cuba to hear witness testimonies in a dispute over the ownership of publishing rights to songs made famous by the band Buena Vista Social Club.
The US-based Peer International corporation claims its copyright to songs dating back to the 30s was unlawfully taken over by the publisher Editora Musical de Cuba (EMC), which is wholly owned by the Cuban state.
EMC says it is trying to salvage royalties for composers whose songs took the world by storm following the release of a film and album in 1997 but who received “at most a few pesos and maybe a drink of rum”. It says that all the original contracts are void because they were “unconscionable bargains” not recognised in law.
The hearing began earlier this month but halted on its sixth day when video links used during questioning of the Cuban witnesses broke down or were of inadequate quality. The judge, Sir John Edmund Frederic Lindsay, had to make his ruling after EMC said proceedings should resume in Havana while their American opponents wanted to stay on British territory.
The Cuban company pleaded that the case should go to Havana on the grounds that the cost of bringing up to 12 witnesses to London and accommodating them would be huge and could stifle its case because of Cuba’s lack of hard currency.
Mr Justice Lindsay, one of the court’s most senior judges, rejected Peer’s concerns that he would have no jurisdiction in Cuba. He said he intended to appoint himself as a special examiner so that he could go to Cuba in September and hear the witnesses at a private hearing with only the parties, their lawyers and himself present.
“It is, in my judgment, expedient in the course of justice firstly that there should be examinations by a special examiner in Cuba and, secondly, as the full benefit of someone seeing and hearing the witnesses give evidence can be obtained only if the special examiner is also the judge hearing the action, that I should be that special examiner,” said the judge in his ruling today.
Mr Justice Lindsay said Cuban government permission was required for the trip to Havana, but he had been assured by the Cuban company’s representative, Peter Prescott QC, that consent would be “readily forthcoming”.
Peer’s counsel, Pushpinder Saini, previously argued that the American company, which owns the Buena Vista Social Club title track and a large number of other works featured on the film and album, had paid royalties to the composers until the revolution in 1959, when the US trade embargo stopped any payments to Cuba.
Writers and composers living outside Cuba were paid and bank accounts were set up to hold funds for those who remained on the island. Many were paid after the US government relaxed its embargo in 1994, added Mr Saini.
The five composers who wrote the 14 songs involved in the test cases being tried are dead, but their many heirs could benefit from royalty payments.