Friday, March 30, 2012

SA Copyright Law and Folktales

I recently learnt that, according to a new Amendment Bill  in the Copyright Law of South Africa, a publisher needs to ask for permission to publish a version of a South African folktale.

My first thought when I heard this was, "but most folktales are passed down orally, so who do we have to ask for permission?"

The complicated answer is that you would get to ask the community where the folktale originated, but in my mind that's not practical. Say you want to publish a retelling of a Setswana folktale, like the story of Tselane and the giant, which I'm actually planning to publish next month. Who do I ask for permission? My own king here in Phokeng? Or one of the chiefs of the Batswana tribes here in the North West province of South Africa? Or maybe I should ask my cousins the Batswana people of Botswana, who are actually in an entirely different country which has a different copyright law? Not that they are a homogenous group either!

The good news for me and the children's folktales I'm publishing is that this is still a Bill, and those take a lot of time to be promulgated. I haven't even seen a request from parliament for comments on the Bill.  However, it will have long-term implications on my favourite form of storytelling for children and I want to stay on the ball as things develop.

P.S. This post is based entirely on my understanding of someone  else's  understanding of SA Copyright Law. So, take whatever I'm saying with a grain of salt. I'm planning to research the Bill so I have read the provisions myself instead of relying on hearsay. I haven't found a copy of the Bill yet. We'll see where the info takes me.

Meanwhile, what do you think of the concept that publishers may have to ask for permission to publish South African folktales? 


tiah said...

Oh my. These good intentions could lead to stories lost forever.

Damaria Senne said...

My fears exactly:-)

PJ said...

How complicated humans make things. Surely even a retelling is unique, because your retelling won't be the same as someone else's retelling. Maybe change the name of Tselane and make the giant something else, like a tokoloshe, and skirt the issue, in the case of Tselane and the Giant? You ask very pertinent questions: who exactly do you ask, which implies that someone owns the copyright, but an oral story unless it is recorded as in a CD or written down, is surely not a copyrightable thing because it is only an idea? There is a copyright law expert at the dti. Maybe you should ask him. I'll give you his name. He's a sweetheart and I'm sure he'd be open to discussing the implications with you as a writer.

Damaria Senne said...

@PJ-thanks for offering to help me connect with a copyright expert. I'll take you up on that.As for Tselane and the giant, this is an iconic fairytale among Batswana and I don't want to change it. Essentially, my feeling is that a lot of Setswana folktales are being lost because they are not being captured in writing or being passed on to the younger generation. So my objective for retelling these stories is more as a way to keep a record for future generations, rather than as a way to express my creativity. I just want to make sure that, if a Motswana parent wants to tell her child the story of Sananapo, for example, they can do a quick search on the Internet and find a credible version of the story they can read for their child. Changing the names of the characters will make the story less. And people who are looking for Tselane and the giant won't be able to find it, because the story will have another title.

PJ said...

Yes, I see what you are saying, and of course you are right about that. What a pity that society is creating commodities even out of traditional stories. They should be available for anyone to use.

Anonymous said...

Do you know the site of Thari-E-Ntsho Storytellers at Bontekanye Botumile from Botswana is also involved. The legislation may differ but you could be inspired. Dalro should really interact and assist authors. Recently Jacana published 'The Ugly Duckling' retold by Sindiwe Magona and others. If it is "retold" is it not your own version?

Damaria Senne said...

No, I didn't know of the site. Thanks for telling me about it. I'm on it now, checking it out and it looks very interesting. I'm also going to pass the link to one of my readers who asked me about leinane I didn't know about and I was hoping to locate it. The story is called "Morwa Ngwedi."
The reader says: "I don't remember it very well but basically an orphan seeks to resurrect his father and he digs up his father's bones and dresses them in clothes and his father comes to life."

As for ownership of the version, for now that is true, the writer owns copyright of their version. And I'm not even sure how the new Bill will impact on that right, if at all.

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