'Buena Vista Club' Song Royalties Disputed

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A British high court is considering a case that involves a dispute over copyright royalties for the Cuban songs featured on the Buena Vista Social Club album released in 1997. An American publishing company argues that the Cuban government illegally seized its copyrights. At issue are 14 Cuban songs that date back to the 1930s. The BBC's Steve Gibbs reports. This audio is unavailable due to legal reasons.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

The Cuban songs featured on the immensely popular "Buena Vista Social Club" recordings are at the center of a copyright dispute. A British court is considering this case. It involves two publishing companies, one Cuban and the other American, and the heirs to the composers who wrote the songs. The BBC's Steve Gibbs reports.

(Soundbite of music)

STEVE GIBBS reporting:

Interest in Cuban music around the world hit an all-time high after the release of the "Buena Vista Social Club" album in 1997, followed by the film of the same name. The American guitarist Ry Cooder brought together some of the island's aging local legends for the album, realizing that if no one else preserved the hidden musical gems, they might be lost forever. The album sold millions of copies and the musicians, previously unknown outside Cuba, became unlikely pop stars.

(Soundbite of music)

GIBBS: But success has brought acrimony. The High Court in London is hearing a case involving rival claims from a US and a Cuban publishing company over the rights to the traditional songs. The American firm says its copyright was illegally seized by the Cuban state after the revolution in 1959. But lawyers for the Cuban company say the original composers only received a few pesos or maybe a glass of rum for their work. The presiding judge, John Lindsay, says he's now going to travel to the islands himself to hear the testimonies of the elderly and frail musicians.

(Soundbite of music)

GIBBS: This hearing is a test case for 14 Cuban songs, which date back to the 1930s. Although all the original composers are now dead, lawyers for the Cuban side say their descendants could benefit from royalty payments. As many of the original members of the "Buena Vista Social Club" are now in the twilight of their lives, this rather unseemly argument about money threatens to cast a shadow over the timeless sounds that came out of old Havana.

(Soundbite of unidentified song)

BUENA VISTA SOCIAL CLUB: (Singing in Spanish)

INSKEEP: That story was prepared by BBC reporter Steve Gibbs.

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