HAVANA — There’s little question that 50-plus years of U.S. economic sanctions have taken a heavy toll on Cuba’s factories, banking system and hospitals.
But for Cuban fans of American movies and television, it’s been a pretty darn great run.
Flip to the TV guide in Granma, the Communist Party’s daily newspaper, and you’ll see a prime-time lineup featuring reruns of “Cold Case,” “MythBusters” and even “Seinfeld.” Now playing at government-owned cinemas: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” “Toy Story 2” in 3-D and, quite fittingly, “Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides.”
None of it is properly licensed or paid for by Cuba, whose government has had little compunction about pirating good programming from a longtime foe with a vast legislative apparatus designed to choke its economy.
Washington and Havana restored diplomatic relations in July, but rebuilding mutual respect for copyrights, trademarks and other intellectual property is one of many still-pending issues.
U.S. Commerce Secretary Penny Pritzker said it was not one of the topics she brought up with Cuban authorities during her visit to the island this month, but she said it is on the agenda for future talks. At a news conference after her departure, Cuban officials said the U.S. sanctions remain so restrictive that discussions of copyright protections are premature.
“There are so many [trade] issues to resolve, and until we establish some basic things, it’s going to be very difficult to talk about copyrights and trademarks,” said Ana Teresa Igarza, the director of Cuba’s Mariel free-trade zone project, which is courting foreign investment.
“Even if Cuba has the money to make the payments, we don’t have any way to transfer the funds,” said Igarza, referring to U.S. restrictions on the use of the dollar by Cuban banks.
Cuba is a signatory to the major international treaties protecting intellectual-property rights, and trade experts say the Castro government has generally done a good job enforcing protections for U.S. products and brands such as Coca-Cola and Nike.
Media content has been treated somewhat differently, though, perhaps because of a socialist ethos that views cultural output — and pharmaceutical breakthroughs — as a kind of public good. Television programming on the island has no advertisements, and like concerts and sporting events, tickets for movies are practically free, so it isn’t as if the Cuban government is turning a big profit on Disney movies and Discovery Channel documentaries.
Although the Cuban government has registered thousands of trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, some of the most bitter and litigious disputes involve the island’s famous cigar and rum brands, such as Cohiba and Havana Club.
Despite being shut out of the biggest market in the world by U.S. sanctions, Cuba’s premium cigars and rum bring in hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue from other countries each year. Recent changes by the Obama administration allow U.S. travelers who visit the island legally to bring back those items in limited quantities for personal use.
Meanwhile, the Castro government has been battling in U.S. courts for nearly 20 years against Dominican-based producers of Cohibas, as well as rum rival Bacardi, which sells the Havana Club brand. Those products are recognized as Cuban trademarks virtually everywhere else in the world, and experts say U.S. courts are also likely to do so as trade relations normalize.
“As the United States moves past aggressive, punitive measures, I think Cuba will be more willing to accept agreements that protect property across the board,” said Robert L. Muse, a lawyer in Washington who specializes in U.S. trade laws relating to Cuba.
Muse said that U.S. sanctions against Cuba do not prohibit payments for the use of media content, because the U.S. Free Trade in Ideas Act of 1993 allows for the sale or export of informational materials, even to countries under embargo.
“If they want to put an episode of ‘Seinfeld’ on Cuban state TV or show ‘The Godfather,’ they can negotiate and pay a fee according to international protocols,” Muse said. “But perhaps understandably, no one has been overly concerned about such niceties as whether Cuba has a royalty agreement to show a U.S. sitcom.”
Another possible factor in Cuba’s behavior, he added, is its disdain for U.S.-funded Radio and TV Martí, which beam anti-Castro news and commentary to an island whose airwaves are tightly controlled by the government.
“According to international telecommunications conventions, it’s unlawful to broadcast content into another nation’s territory that hasn’t been agreed [to] or approved,” Muse said. “So the Cuban view may be: If you’re going to send all this stuff in, we won’t follow custom in other areas, and we’ll help ourselves to other American content.”
Enforcement of intellectual property rights is an issue all over the world, of course, and the Cuban government’s appropriation of U.S. media content is dwarfed by that of street-level Cuban bootleggers, who offer DVDs, CDs and media files out in the open.
Hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of Cuban households subscribe to a privately distributed weekly bundle of movies, shows, games and apps known as “El Paquete” (The Package) that circulates on memory sticks and hard drives. Cuban authorities generally turn a blind eye.
The result is a culture of media piracy that is likely to persist long after U.S.-Cuba trade relations are fixed.
But what is rarely acknowledged is the effect of that culture on Cuban directors, authors and creators.
Alejandro Brugués, whose award-winning zombie spoof “Juan of the Dead” became a sensation on the island in 2011, said a badly produced bootleg of his film began circulating on the streets of Havana within days of its premiere in Spain.
The official release in Cuba was three months away. “We had the crappiest possible copy of the film out there, and everyone was renting it,” he said. “There was nothing we could do,.”
“I remember at some point one of my producers went to check on the pirates in the street, and one of them was bragging he had the best copy of the film there was in Cuba,” said Brugués, who lives in Los Angeles. “My producer told him he was wrong — he had the best copy, as he produced the movie. Then the pirate offered him $5,000 for a Blu-ray of the film. I think now we should’ve taken it.
“I know some filmmakers don’t care about piracy, as long their film makes it to an audience,” Brugués said. “But I do care, because for me and the kind of film I make, international sales are very important. And the problem with having a copy leaked in Cuba is that it immediately makes its way to Miami, and over there someone just uploads it and pretty much screws up your international sales.”