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Buena Vista Social Club

By Frances Robles

A U.S. music company lost its bid for rights to more than dozen songs from the golden age of Cuban music, ending a six-year legal battle against the island's government in a London court.

After a protracted legal dispute that included moving the entire trial to Havana for a few days to take testimony there, a British judge decided last week not to give New Jersey-based Peer Music rights to 14 songs - but he didn't give the rights to the Cuban government music publishing company either. The litigation was considered a critical test case that could have affected up to 600 of Cuba's most cherished oldies.

Having successfully fought off Peer's claim, the Cuban music publishers declared themselves winners in the case. It is likely to result in more litigation, since it is still unclear who has full rights to each song.

"We didn't get the brass ring," said Peter Jaegerman, senior vice president of Peer Music USA.

Peer Music signed up scores of Cuban artists in the 1930s and `40s, but the Cuban government canceled the contracts after Fidel Castro took power. For years, the U.S. embargo prevented the music company from paying royalties, and the money sat in bank accounts.

With the success of "The Buena Vista Social Club," interest in the Cuban classics swelled and everyone from the Cuban government to music companies rushed to dust off aging contracts and royalty deals.

In 2000, Peer sued the German company Termidor, which had registered hundreds of Cuban songs in England on behalf of the Cuban state music company, Editora Musical de Cuba, known as EMC.

Peer argued that its contracts dating back to the `30s and `40s should be honored and that Termidor and EMC had illegally registered the 14 disputed songs. It asked the judge to declare Peer the rightful owners.

The first phase of the trial determined that Cuba could not unilaterally cancel Peer's contracts. Once that was decided, EMC sought to void the contracts, arguing that Peer misled the musicians by getting them to sign unfair deals over a few "pesos and a bottle of rum."

The case wound up moving to Cuba for a few days last year to get the testimony from elderly composers and their heirs. The case exposed the messy complications that result when dollars are at stake, memories are fuzzy and the average monthly wage hovers at about $15.

One witness testified that her signature on a Peer contract must have been copied because it said she was composer Manuel Corona's widow - even though that would have made her 120 years old. She was actually his niece. Others said they signed papers they did not read, and one witness said he was a composer's only heir when in fact there were 10.

An 87-year-old composer testified that he never got a dime - until they showed him canceled checks he signed, court records show.

Peer's representative in Cuba wound up accused of collaborating with an American company against the interests of the Cuban government. Former Peer rep Isabel Cordova, a Cuban lawyer who specialized in copyright issues, fled Cuba in 2002 to avoid a prison sentence and now lives in Miami.

"These composers were going hungry. Not one of them had a color TV or a refrigerator less than 50 years old," Cordova told the Miami Herald. "I feel extraordinarily satisfied with the work I did. If I have one regret, it's that I should have dedicated every minute of my life to helping them more."

She said the charges that Peer cheated the composers were taken out of context, considering the cost of living 60 years ago when the deals were signed.

Ultimately, the judge agreed, saying Peer's deals were standard for the time period and the company in fact paid $2.5 million in royalties to the artists once the U.S. embargo against Cuba was amended to allow it.

But the judge said he was unwilling to declare anyone the rightful owner of the songs because he feared setting a precedent in a case where so many more songs were potentially at stake, Peer's Jaegerman said.

"It was disappointing, but at the same time, it was an enormous vindication of the company," he said. "Now they will never win on this `two drinks and a peso' folklore. We were really fighting a government here. They really wanted that money."

Source: Ledger

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