Vietnamese songwriters say they are undercut by authorities as well as assigned copyright protectors
Overseas Vietnamese singers Che Linh (R) and Huong Lan, both famous among Vietnamese diasporas worldwide, perform at a live show in Hanoi last November. The show was licensed by Vietnam's Department of Arts and Performance although the organizer did not fulfill copyright payment to the songwriters.
Nearly 40 songwriters recently met in Hanoi to complain that Vietnam's Department of Arts and Performance is allowing event organizers to use their works for free.
Their rants against musical show organizers and the department that licenses the shows included accusations of arrogance, abetting theft and unjust practices.
The meeting was organized on February 16 by the Vietnam Center for Protection of Music Copyright (VCPMC), which has been authorized by most songwriters to collect their copyright payment.
It was followed by the songwriters filing a request to the department on February 21, asking it to give permission only to show organizers or CD producers who have taken the approval of songwriters to use their works.
The request is not new.
In October 2010, the Copyright Office of Vietnam which is under the same Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, also made a proposal that the applications for musical shows and CD licenses should include the authors' written approval for using their songs.
So far, the license is given with a reminder that the authors' right should be protected. Many organizers failed to do it, but they continued receiving permission for their shows, the songwriters said.
"Basic ideas of copyright laws are being severely obstructed by the department's license procedures," they said in their petition.
Pho Duc Phuong, director of the center and a famous songwriter himself, cited as an example that the live show of overseas Vietnamese singer Che Linh last November was allowed to go on in Hanoi despite the center's complaint that the producers had not pay the copyright fee.
"The Department of Arts and Performance is very not serious in implementing the laws and protecting authors' rights," Phuong was quoted as saying in a report by news website VnExpress.
The department once told local media that it would not intervene in the payment issue since it is a civil negotiation between the songwriters with organizers and producers.
By not intervening, Phuong said, the department has "annulled" the right of songwriters to protect themselves.
He said the center called for the meeting after many of its requests to the department and the ruling ministry were ignored.
A financial report by the center calculated more than VND41 billion (US$1.97 million) in revenues last year, but most of them came from phone ring tone fees and karaoke shops.
It only managed to collect 10 percent of the payment for songs' copyright, Phuong said.
He blamed laxity on the department's part for the 90 percent loss.
Songwriters at the meeting said each song is their own asset, thus it makes no sense they are not paid when people use it.
Truong Ngoc Ninh, a songwriter and member of the assessment council for musical shows in Hanoi, said singers are always well-treated but the songwriters get ignored and unpaid, with most people not taking their permission even to use their songs.
Ninh said My Tam, a popular pop singer, was paid VND80 million at a recent Valentine's musical night, while the emerging Van Mai Huong, who has not yet graduated from college, got VND55 million for two nights.
"It's so unfair. The songwriters are the owners of the songs, they should have received more than what they did.
"We are the ones producing the songs. We should have had the right to sell our products at the prices we set," he said.
Songwriter Nguyen Trong Tao said he never got as much as VND1 million (nearly $50) for any of his songs that are used widely.
"CDs are using my songs. Dozens of singers are using my songs, not to mention cafés and tea rooms," Tao said.
The songwriters also considered hiring lawyers to follow up on their complaints.
Not our job
In a statement responding to the center's complaints, the department said it's the responsibility of the center to protect the songwriters.
The center has been paid by songwriters to collect their copyright fees, and if it fails to do so, it has to compensate or sue the show organizers, instead of blaming the authorities, the department said.
The copyright tussle shows no signs of ending any time soon as the center also has to deal with complaints of several artists about its "unreasonable" and "unclear" collection of copyright fees.
People's Artist Tran Binh, director of the Theater of Vietnam Music Dance and Song, said the theater has been paying the authors directly for a while as it could not negotiate with the center.
Binh said the prices of the center are not based on any rational system, and it puts the same price for new songs and those that have been popular for decades, and makes no distinction between the song that is making its debut and the hundredth or thousandth time it is used.
"There was a charity show in a remote area where the artists did not ask for any payment but the center still asked for VND700,000 a song used in the program," he said.
VCPMC said on its website that Vietnam's Copyright Law makes no exemption for charity shows.
"Whatever purposes the musical works are used for, the organizers have to ask for the authors' permission. It's the authors who decide to take the copyright fee or donate it," the center said.
Songwriter Phu Quang meanwhile complained the center has been paying him much less than it collected, such as VND300,000 from VND2-4 million, or half of VND20 million.
He also accused the center of never paying poets who wrote lyrics of the songs and that it was never clear how much it collected and paid. Vietnamese songwriters sometimes do not produce brand new songs but only set poems to music.
The center has responded on its website that the songwriter was making "groundless comments."
It said that the center discussed every payment "very carefully" with the songwriter and he always appeared to agree with it.
The center said it only keeps between 5-25 percent of the copyright money it manages to collect for the songwriters, and its business is checked regularly by the British auditing firm Grant Thornton.
Songwriters did not receive so much because a 10 percent value added tax, personal income tax and payment for the poets were deducted from their payment, it said.
The center also said it has been trying to pay the poets. But many of them have died or did not have an address, and the center had to put notices on its website and many newspapers in trying to contact them.
This is not the first time Quang made negative comments against the center, it said, adding that the center would seek authorities' intervention if such comments damage its prestige and credibility.
Pho Duc Phuong, director of the center, said they were always doing their best to protect members' rights and popularize the idea of protecting authors' rights.
In response to all the criticism levied against the effectiveness of the center's operation, he said: "Protecting authors' rights in Vietnam is still a long journey with many complications.
"The country is just in the first stage of development, the notion of authors' rights is vague, and the impact of the laws is limited."