Standing up for the small guy (part 1)

Picture this: The writer of a zulu tune written in 1939 dies in poverty 20 years later. His song goes on to become one of the most popular tunes in Africa, and is recognised the world over. Ownership of the copyright ends up in American hands, and finds its way into a film which becomes a worldwide hit. The film makes tens of millions of dollars, and is then turned into a successful stage musical – a few more million in the bank and counting. The song reportedly makes $15 million but the family of the writer get $15,000. As Rolf Harris would say, can you guess what it is yet?

Now, I’m no expert in copyright law, although apparently it should have reverted back to the family of the deceased 25 years after his death, so that would be 1987. Something somewhere seems to have been overlooked, but the family eventually sued and won an ‘undisclosed’ out-of-court settlement. Another case of the multinational/big corporate beating the small guy with a stick?

Ethics are a wonderful thing, and many people don’t argue against them particularly. Unless they get in the way of making a few quid, that is. Ask a hundred people on the street what they think and I bet most would side with the small guy, but they don’t have their finger in this particular financial pie. Ask a hundred shareholders – of Disney in this case, if you were wondering – and I suspect you’ll get slightly different results. The trouble is that exploitation of this kind is probably taking place all the time, but we never get to hear about it. I bet there are a lot of really pissed-off people out there…

But what happens when one of the stars of a film, or book, or song can’t speak for itself? I’m thinking wildlife – whales, dolphins, gorillas, lions and all manner of worldly creatures. There’s also a very compelling ethical/financial issue here. It’s ironic that most of the ‘wildlife stars’ in these productions happen to either sit on, or uncomfortably near, the ‘critically endangered’ or ‘critically threatened’ list. How much of the hundreds of millions (even billions?) of dollars made from films such as The Lion King, King Kong and Free Willy been donated to the conservation of these very species? I’d like to do a little more research on that one.

Musically speaking, Michael Jackson’s epic ‘Earth Song’ from 1996 – “What have we done to the world, Look what we’ve done” – takes us through almost everyone’s top 10 favourite animals (“What about elephants, What about crying whales” and so on) and drives home their destruction and death. Not knowing how much money was made globally by this massive hit, again it would be a very interesting exercise to find out how much was donated to causes trying to save those very elephants and whales. I’ll happily stand corrected, but again would be very surprised if it were much, if anything at all.

Wouldn’t it be great if there was a law which made it compulsory to donate a certain percentage of income (and not just a token amount, either) to the preservation of any species which take a central role in your song, film, photograph or book? After all if lions, gorillas, whales, ants and so on didn’t exist then we wouldn’t be able to enjoy watching films about them, whether they’re turned into rampaging 30 foot monsters with attitude, changed into cartoon figures or kept in their natural form.

Unless something gives the only place future generations will be able to see these magnificent creatures will be in dusty film archives – or at best a zoo – and that would not only be a real shame but an ecological and environmental disaster.


According to a GSM Association spokesman quoted on the BBC Online website today, “The mobile phone is the only viable technology that can bridge the digital divide”. This is quite a bold statement in a debate which has been running for a fair old time. It goes along the lines that by putting something digital – a mobile phone in this case – into the hands of the worlds poor you can economically empower them, among other things. If it were only this simple.

It goes without saying that the mobile phone is revolutionising the way Africans talk to each other. Often described as a “leapfrogging technology” the mobile is bringing communications to areas which have never seen, and in many cases would never be likely to see, traditional landlines. And once these phones are unleashed on a population it’s true that quite amazing things happen. Budding entrepreneurs quickly spring up providing battery charging services, others sell carry cases, chunks of call time, car chargers, replacement covers and top-up cards (a huge percentage of third world customers use the ‘Pay-as-you-go’ service due to a lack of credit history, a bank account or even an address). One of the more remarkable examples of entrepreneurship is the building of tall wooden towers which users climb, for a fee of course, before making their call in areas with a bad signal. Who’d have thought of that?

During field-based research for a report I co-authored a couple of years ago, we called this “organic growth”, the secondary effect of the mobile revolution. At that time the knock-on effect of providing mobile coverage to a population wasn’t really appreciated, but sometime later Vodafone showed they had their eye on the ball when they published a comprehensive study of the socio-economic impact of mobile phones. It’s well worth a look.

As far as economic empowerment goes, it is true that some will benefit. But many others will be left behind. Being able to send a text or make a phone call alone isn’t going to drag everyone out of poverty. The mobile phone as a political empowerment tool though? Well, that’s another matter. Voting in elections with your mobile? Being done. Spreading a political message? Being done. Campaigning? Being done. Political activism? Being done. Quite clearly the more phones out there equals more opportunity.

It’s perhaps no coincidence that many developing countries are struggling with the democratic model, and perhaps no coincidence that in a fair few dictatorial regimes reign ‘supreme’. (Is Thabo Mbeki the only African leader not trying to change his country’s Constitution to stand for a third term?!). In places where free speech can land you in a whole load of trouble, mobile technology can give people a voice (or text, as the case may be). And an anonymous one at that. And this should not be underestimated.

The GSM Association can certainly do their bit. But let’s not get carried away. Unleashing 12 million $30 handsets into developing countries may grab the headlines, but a handset alone isn’t going to solve the complex problems that many of these people face on a daily basis.