Oloture: Netflix, Ebonylife, Mo Abudu in Copyright scandal

November 13, 2020
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Ebonylife Limited producers, of Oloture, an Original Netflix Film, which was released October 2nd, 2020, has threatened to sue Ms. Tobore Ovuorie, the investigative journalist whose life story was made into the thriller which have been viewed in no fewer than 87 countries so far.

Oloture tells the story of a Lagos-based journalist who goes undercover as a prostitute to expose human trafficking and finds a world of exploited women and ruthless violence.

In a letter dated November 9th, 2020 and titled: RE: NOTICE OF INFRINGEMENT – OLOTURE, Ebonylife had through its lawyer Olaniwun Ajayi, directed that Ms. Ovuorie desists from accusing Ebonylife about ethical misconducts which bothers on intellectual theft and copyrights infringement. It also demanded that Ms. Ovuorie “publish retractions of the disparaging publications on the various platforms where the disparaging remarks were made, failing which our Client will be left with no choice, but to resort to its considered legal actions, without further recourse to you.”

Ms.Ovuorie’s legal representatives, Maverick and Spectre had reached out to Ebonylife in a letter dated November 3rd, 2020 and titled: ‘NOTICE OF COPYRIGHT INFRINGEMENT – OLOTURE’, that Oloture is an adaptation of her original work, narrating her true life experiences which was first published January 22nd, 2014 by Zam Magazine, Netherlands, and had since been published on several other platforms, including Premium Times.

Ms. Ovuorie after spending several years on research on sex trafficking had gone undercover for some months in 2013 to expose sex trafficking syndicates in Nigeria and her experience was published in 2014. Here is a link to the original piece published by Zam Magazine

https://www.zammagazine.com/chronicle/chronicle-5/51-the-next-level?s=09

According to the letter by Maverick and Spectre, May 31st, 2019 Ms. Ovuorie received a letter dated May 30th, 2019 and titled: “Appreciation For Journalistic Endeavors,” from Ebonylife which was signed by the Chief Executive Officer of the Organization, Ms. Mo Abudu. In the said letter, Ebonylife disclosed it came across Ms. Ovuorie’s story while doing a research for the movie, Oloture and the movie was inspired by Ms. Ovuorie’s published story, alongside other articles and projects. However, Maverick and Spectre stated that the “other works claimed by Ebonylife have never been referenced or disclosed till dated.”

Ebonylife had pledged five percent of the net profit from Oloture’s theatrical run in Nigerian cinemas to Ms. Ovuorie’s Non Government Organization named Media Initiative Against Human trafficking and Women Rights Abuse (MIAHWRA) and further promised to give Ms. Ovuorie screen credit in the movie.

Legal representatives to Ms. Ovuorie say the letter which was set to achieve more than what was contained on the surface, never informed Ms. Ovuorie the movie which was yet to be released then is a “complete plagiarism and adaptation of her work and the said appreciation, ostensibly, sought to achieve a waiver of intellectual property rights theft through the backdoor.

“It is therefore confounding and at the same time not surprising, that the appreciation letter contains at the bottom, column for acceptance of terms and conditions. Our Client was happy about the production of the movie on sex trafficking and even encouraged the story without knowledge of the fact that several material facts which would have established the unauthorized exploitation of her copyright were deliberately suppressed and /or misrepresented when your company initially contacted her.”

But September 21st, 2020 Ms. Ovuorie started receiving several calls from concerned well-wishers alerting her that a movie trailer online which bears semblance to her life story was to be released on Netflix October 2nd, 2020. This was how she got to know that Ebonylife had exclusively license the movie to Netflix, Inc. though had issued an appreciation letter in which five percent of the net profit from Oloture’s theatrical run in Nigerian cinemas had been pledged to Ms. Ovuorie’s NGO.

Ms. Ovuorie when reached for a comment over this said “Please, is this not equivalent to issuing a dude cheque? Does this show any shred of integrity? How ethical and respectful is such act?”

Maverick and Spectre said after Oloture was released, Ms. Ovuorie received several phone calls via which she was informed that her story was now a movie on Netflix but when she observed that the movie reviews on social media repeatedly made direct reference to her, she immediately watched the film on Netflix and to her greatest dismay found out that the movie wasn’t just a direct adaptation of her publication but unacknowledged the fact that it is an adaptation of her story.

Ebonylife in its response said Ms. Ovuorie had access to a private screening of the movie on June 12th, 2019. However, when contacted over this, Ms. Ovuorie said that claim is “deliberate half-truths”. According to her, the version she was shown was incomplete and without the credits, while Ms. Heidi Uys an employee of Ebonylife at whose residence the movie was watched on a television set streamed via a laptop computer, had at the time, told her that the film was still in post-production. Ms.Ovuorie said she did inform Ms. Abudu about this when the latter October 3rd, 2020 claimed over the phone that she watched the movie before it was released.

“Ebonylife never showed me the complete work before publicizing it. I watched the complete work on Netlix just like other viewers. If I had been shown the complete work before publication, I will definitely have kicked against the dodgy end credit, as well as the open and end credits for story which bears other people’s names though the movie is an adaptation of my work. I will definitely have told them precisely what is to be done, in case all these were innocent mistakes. We definitely wouldn’t be having this debate now if Ebonylife observed due diligence, and ethical standards.”

Maverick and Spectre in its notice to Ebonylife said the latter further embarrassed Ms. Ovuorie and trivialized her experiences by claiming on several occasions that Oloture is a “mere fiction”. This is also expressly inscribed in the movie as follows:

“This is a work of fiction. The events, name, characters, places and incidents depicted in this motion picture are used fictitiously. Any resembles to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental and unintentional.”

Further checks by this publication reveals Ebonylife had October 3rd, 2020 told Native Magazine, an online publication that Oloture, although fictional shares similarities with other stories of sex trafficking as these are shared experiences that they gathered from their research and survivors of trafficking.

More checks online reveal claims that Ms. Abudu and Heidi Uys are the persons who conceived the original story which birthed the film; Oloture.

Ms. Ovuorie’s legal representative in its notice to Ebonylife but which calls the attention of Ms Abudu, said there is abundant evidence and personal admissions in print, audio recordings and publications to the effect that Oloture was based on the published story of Tobore. The legal firm however stated that “the only reference that has been made to our Client and her publications was a mere line of appreciation stating as follows: Thank you to Premium Times and Tobore Ovuorie and all journalists who go undercover to expose the truth, for inspiring this film.”

Ms. Ovuorie and her lawyers say the appreciation falls below industry standard for an end credit and same was coined deliberately to disingenuously remove the focus and attention from Ms. Ovuorie as the author of the story adapted by Ebonylife.

Maverick and Spectre’s further stated to Ebonylife that “It is instructive to note that the actions of your company as described in the foregoing paragraphs constitute a copyright infringement which has caused serious damage and overwhelming devastation to our Client. Your company’s callous and insensitive act has subjected our Client to bitter memories of her experience and loss of income.

“Kindly note that your letter of 30 May, 2019 is a mere letter of appreciation and not an authorization for the infringement of our Client’s copyright. Our Client did not assign the copyright of her work to your company or any other person and the said letter was not a request for assignment of copyright. It was merely an appreciative note which came as an after-thought at the completion of the production of the Movie as we are aware that the production of the Movie had begun since 5 November 2018 and even a screening of the film had held on 28 May 2019 before our Client was contacted. In this regard, we commend to you the provision of Section 10(4) of the Copyrights Act, CAP C28 Laws of the Federation of Nigeria 2004 which specifically stipulates that:

“In the case of a cinematograph film or sound recording, the author shall be obliged to conclude, prior to the making of the work, contracts in writing with all those whose works are to be used in the making of the work”.

“Our Client, being the author of the work adapted into the Movie has the exclusive rights to control the reproduction of the work in any material form, publication of the work, performance of the work in public, translation of the work, the making of any cinematographic film or record in respect of the work, distribution of the work to the public for commercial purposes, broadcast or communication of the work to the public, the making of any adaptation of the work, and the right to authorize any of the foregoing. These rights are guaranteed by our local laws and by international treaties. Article 9(1) of the TRIPS Agreement provides that authors of literary and artistic works shall have the exclusive right of authorizing the reproduction of these works, in any manner or form.

“It is trite law that when a person’s work has been adapted without his or her consent, such act constitutes a copyright infringement which is actionable as a breach of statutory duty owed to the person entitled to the right, and enabling such person to be entitled to an award of damages, injunction, Order for accounts or any other form of remedies. Our Client’s rights have not only been breached by the acts of your company in the circumstance, but the manner and substance of the breach is one that constitutes deep hurt to our Client.

“We have our Client’s firm instructions to escalate the actions of your company to Netflix, approach the necessary regulatory authorities for redress, inform relevant movie award Committees of the unlawful adaptation, and institute an action against your company and Netflix in the appropriate court. Kindly note that this letter is borne out of respect to your good person and an expression of courtesy before the escalation of your company’s breach of our Client’s copyright to third parties and authorities. Our Client’s immediate demands are as follows:

“1. Compensation for copyright infringement in the sum of $5,000,000.00 (Five Million US Dollars).

“2. The immediate inclusion of a proper open credit and end credit in the Movie, acknowledging the adaptation of her work in line with industry standard and practice;

“3. Restriction on any further exploitation of our Client’s published life story by your good self, your company and its related companies or affiliates, in any form, including our Client’s post -investigation struggles and experiences, such as her nervous breakdown episodes, which she personally shared with you on set, on or about 6 June 2019 during the recording of the special edition of your program titled: ‘Moments With Mo’ at the Ilupeju recording studio of your company.

“The open and end credits of the Movie should be re-edited to read as follows:

Open Credit

“THIS FILM IS LARGELY BASED ON EVENTS WHICH HAPPENED TO A NIGERIAN INVESTIGATIVE JOURNALIST IN A 2014 PUBLISHED INVESTIGATIVE STORY”.

End Credit

“THIS FILM IS AN ADAPTATION OF:

WEST AFRICA| UNDERCOVER INSIDE THE HUMAN TRAFFICKING MAFIA, AN INVESTIGATIVE STORY BY TOBORE OVUORIE PUBLISHED BY ZAM MAGAZINE, NETHERLANDS, ON 22 JANUARY 2014 AND SUBSEQUENTLY BY PREMIUM TIMES, NIGERIA”.

“TAKE NOTICE that if your company fails to meet with our Clients demands aforesaid within a period of 7 (seven) working days, we shall immediately carry out our Client’s instructions as stated above, without any further recourse to you. Your liabilities in such circumstance shall be imponderable.

Ebonylife through its lawyer, Olawun Ajayi, have debunked the claims by Ms. Ovuorie and her legal representatives. The Olawun Ajayi chambers stated that:

“ The allegation in your letter, that the Project is “a complete plagiarism and adaptation of (your Client’s) work”, is unfounded and our Client hereby refutes it in its entirety.

“It is instructive to note that in embarking on the Project, our Client was inspired by the global nature of the subject of human and sex trafficking and conducted research whilst relying on several widely available reports and articles.

“In the course of the development of the Project, our Client’s attention was drawn to a Premium Times’ article captioned “Investigation: Inside Nigeria’s Ruthless Human Trafficking Mafia” published on 23.01.14 (“the Publication”). Noting that the Publication touches on the research interests of our Client, our Client, as you may be aware, approached Premium Times Services Limited – the lawful owners of the copyright in the Publication, to commend its journalistic efforts and to obtain necessary authorisation in connection to the Publication, before the release of the Project.

“Notwithstanding the foregoing, and as you pointed out in your letter, our Client gratuitously reached out to your Client via a letter dated 30.05.19, in recognition of the common goal of eradicating human trafficking in Nigeria.”

When our reporter contacted Ms. Ovuorie she still says Oloture is a product of unethical and unprofessional conduct. She says the Netflix Original Film did not only fail the process of due diligence, it is an end product of intellectual theft.

Ms. Ovuorie confirmed that her legal representatives received a letter from Ebonylife Media November 11th, 2020, so is aware of the latter’s threat and act of intimidation in the face of truth and fact but she remains unmoved.

“My work did not inspire Oloture. Oloture is an adaptation of my work. There is a huge difference between an inspired work and an adapted work.

“I remain resolute with my demands for immediate inclusion of proper open and end credits in Oloture, acknowledging the adaptation of my work in line with industry standard and practice; compensation for the copyright infringement and intellectual theft, as well as restriction on any further exploitation of my published life story by the Chief Executive Officer of Ebonylife, the organization and its related companies and affiliates, in any form, which includes my post-investigation struggles and experiences, such as my nervous breakdown episodes which I personally shared with Ms. Mo Abudu June 6th, 2020 while on set for the recording of the special edition of her programme titled; ‘Moments With Mo’ at the organization’s Ilupeju recording studio,” she said.

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