The Copyright System and the SDGs: An Ajegunle Story

You stretched out your calloused hands

Switched on your weed-infested smile

And spread our battled history

Like a tattered mat for my calling feet…

– Extracted from the poem ‘A SONG FOR AJEGUNLE’ by Niyi Osandare

This post summarizes the discussion held on 16 May 2024 at a program on intellectual property and sustainable development at the University of Antwerp, Belgium.

My role at this event was to discuss how the copyright system contributes to achieving the SDGs. I focused mainly on the music industry in developing countries and I approached the topic through a story about Ajegunle, a place in Lagos, Nigeria.

I began by noting that usually, when people talk about the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and its relationship with copyright, the focus is on copyright exceptions and limitations; for example, showing how these enable access to knowledge (see literature on exceptions for visually impaired persons and for libraries). So we did that briefly.

After that, I looked at how the system benefits society at large but also authors themselves—the subject of the copyright system. I did this by discussing how the copyright system, the SDGs and Ajegunle, a city in Nigeria, are connected.

Let’s begin with Ajegunle.

Ajegunle and its Music

You may already know that Nigeria’s music industry is one of the most vibrant in the world. In fact, it has been described as Nigeria’s ‘New Oil’ and holds its place as Africa’s largest music industry.[1] What you might not know is that you cannot tell the story of Nigeria’s music industry without talking about the role played by Ajegunle, a district in Lagos that was once notorious for being one of the harshest slums in the world.

Describing Ajegunle, one author wrote: “hauntingly dingy and dilapidated shanties line dusty and broken streets. The houses, many of which are uncompleted, are what Nigerians call “face-me-I-face-you”: rows of single rooms facing one another. Some families live in a standard room of 12 by 14 feet. Cooking is mostly done along a darkened, smoky corridor. Children defecate and bathe in the streets.”

That, notwithstanding, one thing people liked about Ajegunle was that it was the true melting pot of Nigeria’s numerous ethnic groups. “AJ city” developed its own distinct culture—separate from the usual tribal groupings.

But what is loved about Ajegunle is that, amidst the struggles and hardships, this city found music and uses it as a way out of hardship. In response to how people looked down on Ajegunle, residents wrote and performed songs showing pride for their “Jungle City”.[2] They turned their experiences into art—lyrics, melodies, rhythms and dances—that resonated with people across the world. Over time, Ajegunle became synonymous with musical talent, producing stars like Daddy Show key, African China, Danfo Drivers and Junior & Pretty.

So what has all of this got to do with the copyright system?

Ajegunle Music and the Copyright System

Without the copyright system, it would be difficult for writers, musicians, dancers and other artists to earn a living or make a career from their art. Now let’s imagine the Ajegunle music scene without copyright protection. Anyone could exploit anyone’s music—recording, distributing, performing it, or even using it on TikTok – without permission or compensation. Perhaps some true fans may still donate to help the artists, but it wouldn’t be a right. It’d be discretionary. The copyright system is the bedrock of music careers, ensuring creators are fairly rewarded.

Through copyright, music becomes more than a hobby. Artists earn a living by licensing their work. When a record is sold, a portion of the sale goes to the composer, songwriter, and performer. Broadcasts, concerts, and even mass-produced CDs all trigger copyright fees. This system has empowered countless talented musicians, allowing them to build sustainable careers.

Ajegunle Music, Copyright and the SDGs

So, how does the music copyright system contribute to achieving the SDGs?

Firstly, copyright protection fosters economic growth and decent work (SDG 8) by providing musicians with a means to earn a living from their creative endeavors. In Ajegunle, where poverty or other negative tropes dominated discussions about the landscape, music has become a forefront topic and a viable career path for many residents. It is through the copyright system that artists can monetize their talent, creating jobs within the music industry and stimulating economic development.

Secondly, copyright fuels innovation and cultural exchange (SDG 9) by incentivizing artists to create and share their work. A true melting pot—Ajegunle’s music scene thrives on diversity and creativity, with artists drawing inspiration from their unique experiences and cultural heritage.Copyright protection ensures that these creative expressions are preserved and disseminated, enriching the cultural landscape and fostering cross-cultural understanding.

Moreover, copyright facilitates access to knowledge and cultural resources (SDG 4) by balancing the rights of creators with the interests of the public. While copyright grants creators exclusive rights to their work, it also includes provisions for fair use, allowing for limited use of copyrighted material for purposes such as education, criticism, and research. Additionally, copyright expiration ensures that works eventually enter the public domain, making them freely accessible to all.

In Ajegunle, we witness a microcosm of the transformative power of copyright in realizing the SDGs. Just like the copyright system, Ajegunle is not perfect either. But through music, a community once marred by poverty and adversity has found a small beacon of hope. And in the broader context of the SDGs, Ajegunle serves as a compelling case study of how IP, particularly copyright, can be leveraged to drive positive social change. By recognizing and protecting the rights of creators, we not only nurture artistic talent but also promote economic growth, social inclusion, and cultural diversity.

In sum, a lot of Ajegunle residents have lifted themselves and others from poverty through music. But what enables this to happen is the existence of the copyright system. As such, although this system is often hidden away in the background, copyright is deserving of appreciation.

In concluding, I must stress that this is not to be interpreted as saying the copyright system is not without its flaws. The phrase ‘mass-produced CDs’ hints at the issue of piracy, which undermines artists’ earnings. Additionally, power imbalances can exist in contracts, with record labels, music distribution companies, and platforms potentially taking unfair advantage of musicians. Enforcing your copyright or resolving copyright disputes can also be a costly and time-consuming process in Nigeria and many other jurisdictions.

Nonetheless, through the lens of the SDGs, I’m forced to say “thank you” to the copyright system, even as we strive to improve it.

Why not explore the rich sounds of Ajegunle music for yourself? Who knows, you might discover a new favorite tune that resonates with the spirit of resilience!


[1]Sean Pager, ‘The Role of Copyright in Creative Industry Development’ (2017) 10 Law and Development Review.

[2]‘Ajegunle: Where Superstars Are Groomed – DAILY TIMES Nigeria’ <https://dailytimesng.com/ajegunle-where-superstars-are-groomed/> accessed 16 April 2024.

About Seun Lari-Williams 28 Articles
Called to the Nigerian bar in 2014, Seun has extensive experience working as a litigation lawyer in Nigeria and as an IP Consultant. He has worked closely with diverse clients in the entertainment industry, helping them innovate faster while protecting their IP. He has also garnered experience working with a patent law firm in Brussels, Belgium. He studied law at the University of Lagos, Nigeria and obtained an LL.M in IP & Competition Law from the Munich Intellectual Property Law Center, Germany. Seun is the 2021 winner of the ALAI European Author’s Rights Award.

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