Millions have been wasted in white elephant deals a fraction of which could have been invested in the proper procurement of copyrighted material for our children
A few years ago, when I started off in the tenuous business of editorial consultancy, one of my flagship medium term projects was the production of a specific type of textbook intended for secondary schools across the Caribbean. The intent was (and still is) to correct what I perceived then from research and personal experience to be a serious deficit in the regional education curriculum, a perception that was most recently given credence by the official reports coming out the Caribbean Examination Council’s 2012 regional examination results.
I have worked arduously and sacrificed a great deal to commit to staying in Guyana and building a publication industry from the ground up. While I have been unrelenting in my criticism of the system and its shortcomings, I have never closed the door on working with the Government of Guyana, as even the Minister of Culture can acknowledge.
For Dr Roger Luncheon to sit down and say that government is concerned with value for money instead of honouring as basic a principle as intellectual property is not simply the height of impunity and arrogance, it is an admission of a wilful ignorance and myopia on the parts of both himself and of the party that has been at the helm of this country for two decades.
The argument can be made that governments in developing countries have to weigh the moral commitment to development versus often skewed international treaty obligations. This does not apply in this case, either in relative or real terms – and it has nothing to do with fiscal responsibility.
Of the millions of dollars that have gone to wasted white elephant facilities under the President’s Youth Choice Initiative, of the billions that have made it into the questionable Marriott deal, of the billions that have been lost in the bungling of the Amaila Falls project, a fraction could have been invested in the proper procurement of copyrighted material to benefit our children. Another tiny fraction could have gone into creating a proper cultural policy document as a part of an overall development blueprint for taking Guyana forward in the information age, and into the burgeoning cultural industries market.
Yet another fraction could have been invested in equipping NCERD, the National Centre for Education Research and Development, with the necessary tools to produce educational texts for which the state would hold copyright and seek to market, in the interest of sustainability and community leadership, across the region.
These are relatively low-cost investments with tangible yield in the not so distant future. Instead, after twenty years in government, it is the “philosophy” of the PPP to engage in wanton and unapologetic state-sponsored intellectual property theft. For people like myself, and the pioneering Barrington Braithwaite – who have seen enough potential here to invest time, sweat and money into the creation of a proper cultural industries environment – this is a direct slap in the face from the highest public office of the land, the Office of the President, sanctioned by the highest decision-making body, the Cabinet.
It was a surreal experience reading in Wednesday’s edition of SN of Clifford Narinesingh, co-author and publisher’s representative of some of the texts for which the bidding was opened, engaging in competitive bidding for pirated books that were as close as possible to his company’s original; it was even more surreal to read yesterday the following words attributed to no less a person than the Head of the Presidential Secretariat:
“You could be a publisher with a copyright and you could offer to sell me the book for $1. My friend is a good photocopy artist and he could sell me the book for 10 cents. All of you are going to bid but who do you think is going to get it?”
I am a currently finishing off the writing of a collection of short fiction, a collection of poetry, and I intend in a few weeks to release the 10th-anniversary edition of my first book, Ariadne & Other Stories – after this, I intend to start research and writing the textbooks that I planned years ago. I have worked hard, and sacrificed a great deal to get to where I am, and I have never approached the government asking for a handout or a contract to get my work done, yet under the PPP’s “philosophy,” were any of my work to become part of the national or regional curriculum, as author and publisher of my own intellectual property, my ability to profit off my own work in my country of birth, residence and citizenship would be compromised by “competitive” bidding sanctioned and paid for by the state, and open to anyone with a printery capable of reproducing my work to “original” specifications.
The value for money argument is fallacious and inherently prejudiced against the entrepreneurial publisher who has to invest money in paying writers, proofreaders, layout artists, illustrators but who has to then compete, after tremendous initial investment, against someone who simply has to reprint his or her books without any of the initial overheads.
The impunity with which this is rationalized by Dr Luncheon is virtually scandalous – this is a throwback to some of the worst sociocultural excesses of Stalinist communism in that what the Government of Guyana is saying, to writers and artists and cultural entrepreneurs, is that they will exercise eminent domain over intellectual property, without rationale and without apology, whenever they want and with a straight face. In closing, the Ministry of Culture – under Dr Frank Anthony – in 2007 commissioned a working group, headed by now Director of Culture, Dr James Rose to produce a National Cultural Policy document. The result was a draft, admirably attempted but needing refinement, a task I volunteered a few weeks ago to work with the ministry to engage – to his credit, Dr Anthony, in the presence of his Permanent Secretary, Alfred King, agreed in principle. In Section 9.3 – Short/Medium Term Action Required of the draft ‘National Cultural Policy” under the subsection Legislations [sic], there were the commitments, inter alia:
“*To enact up-to-date and effective legislation to protect and foster the growth and development of intellectual property in the country.
“*To sign and ratify the appropriate international conventions to facilitate the reciprocity upon which effective administration of copyright depends.”
My question is, how precisely does Cabinet’s wilful and unapologetic disregard of copyright sync with the spirit and/or letter of the above? The level of backwardness emanating out of the Office of the President is not only an embarrassment locally, but now regionally as well.