Onyeka Onwenu, a Nigerian and African music icon, has sued British-Nigerian Jason Njoku’s IROKING for 205 million naira over alleged copyright infringement of her songs. On January 14, 2018, Onwenu announced her intention to sue the company, and now, according to The Nation’s Newspaper, she has indeed filed her suit.
Onwenu’s public statements on why she was filing the suit:
“For years, Iroking profited from the sale of my music, even after a two-year contract it signed with me had elapsed. For years, also, they denied that they were doing so, they denied that they had made any profits from their illegal exploits. When they were caught in the lie, they wanted to settle but refused to show up for meetings.”
“Iroking as a Company is arrogant and has no regard for the people, Artistes whose works and labour have made them successful. We are therefore suing to make a point. Artistes have a right to profit from their Intellectual Property and labour. Nigeria has Copyright Laws which ought to be respected. The music industry has been built up and sustained by artistes and entrepreneurs like me. I demand to be protected by the Laws of my Country. Iroking must pay for this violation.”
“It is also my hope that other Artistes will wake up and demand what is due them. Many do not know that their music is being exploited on YouTube and other carriers.”
“Some record companies are selling our music on the internet and claiming ownership of the copyright. If only we would pay attention, Artistes would discover that while they had been doing all the creative work, investing in their careers and in the industry at large, someone else is collecting all the profit. Enough is Enough! Arise Nigerian artistes and take back what belongs to you. You have been cheated for far too long.” – Onyeka Onwenu
Ms. Uduak’s Commentary
Is the lawsuit against Jason Njoku’s Iroking a surprise? As many of you longtime readers know, the answer has to be an unequivocal “no.” Right from the inception of IROKING and IROKO Partners, the parent company of IROKING, I have said to anticipate this kind of lawsuit, and frankly, I am surprised it didn’t happen sooner.
However, do note that Njoku and IROKING will not be the only ones having to defend a suit like Onwenu’s. The fact is that there are many alleged rights holders in Nigeria and Africa’s entertainment space that simply do not own the content they claim they do, as Onwenu correctly points out, even if they believe the licenses they have acquired are legitimate.
This is because independent of the Onwenu versus IROKING type scenario, there is a chain of title issue that rightsholders of African content have not faced but will have to, in the nearest future, as many seek monetization of their content.
Indeed, it is my position that for the past 25-30 years in Nigeria and Africa’s entertainment industries, creators and rights holders, as a whole, have simply not done a good job of ensuring a clear chain of title. This means, for example, that if a composer composes music, and that composition is ultimately recorded by a recording artist along with a producer, we can, in fact, track every person involved in that creation, ensure the requisite licenses i.e. consent were obtained before exclusively licensing and distributing the music to third parties. The situation gets worse when we shift to the film industry, Nollywood. A large majority of content created in Nollywood and profited on by distributors involve copyright infringement works of creators. This is and will be a problem especially if its industry professionals want to play in the global entertainment market.
If you are reading this and you are a U.S or other western investor seeking to acquire content from Africa, your best bet is to commission a newly created work and ensure all necessary releases/licenses have been obtained. Otherwise, there is always a major risk of a lawsuit and these days, you do not need to be in Africa, thanks to technology, to sue infringers of African content in the U.S. or other western markets for copyright theft.
For Njoku, he has several issues he should be worried about:
1) A reputation management issue which ultimately affects business. Njoku has had a negative reputation problem in the African entertainment industry for a long time, one that he publicly seemed to relish. Now that he has attempted to disown that identity, he still has some fixing to do and needs to put in more effort in rebranding. Indeed, I find it interesting that Onwenu focuses on that reputation issue in her statements.
2) IROKO Partners introduced two key services to creators and the public at large when it launched: IROKO (the film arm), and IROKING (the music arm). IROKO seemed to do better with the content acquisition and rights clearances. IROKING, however, has been a thorn in the flesh for Njoku. First, he hired Michael Ugwu who appeared capable of operating the company. However, personality clash and differences of opinion on the vision for the company led to a very noisy exit for Ugwu. Thereafter, IROKING has remained dormant with no real movement until late last year. This is bad for business and creates a situation like a lawsuit filed by Onwenu, and more lurking ahead. Systems within IROKING need to be more efficient and every license revisited to avoid issues like this.
Entertainment lawsuits in Nigeria are still very new but rest assured that more lay ahead, and in fact, it will become commonplace. Finally, I do not see this going to trial. Nigerians have a “let’s settle this” cultural mentality, to begin with. So, I anticipate a resolution without an actual trial. This further underscores my point of Njoku’s need to clean up his brand reputation.
Let’s see how it all shakes out.
Archived AML Relevant Coverage of Jason Njoku’s IROKING
1. From Sheer Arrogance to Humility, IROKO’s Jason Njoku Talks …
2. My podcast interview with Njoku on the AML show where he discusses the challenges with IROKING
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Credited for several firsts in the fashion and entertainment industry, Ms. Uduak is also a Partner and Co-Founder of Ebitu Law Group, P.C. where she handles her law firm’s intellectual property law, media, business, fashion, and entertainment law practice areas. She has litigated a wide variety of cases in California courts and handled a variety of entertainment deals for clients in the USA, Africa, and Asia. Her work and contributions to the creative industry have been recognized by numerous organizations including the National Bar Association, The American University School of Law and featured in prestigious legal publications in the USA including ABA Journal and The California Lawyer Magazine.
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