Legal fireworks imminent as journalist Tobore Ovuorie, EbonyLife tango over Oloture

by Araayo Akande

A high-profile copyright infringement case that will test Nigeria’s intellectual property
right law appears to be in the offing between journalist Tobore Ovuorie and the
founder of EbonyLife Films, Mo Abudu.
Ovuorie, author of the Premium Times’ article entitled “Investigation: Inside Nigeria’s
Ruthless Human Trafficking Mafia” published on January 23, 2014, and from which
Abudu’s Netflix Original movie, ‘Oloture’ substantially derives, has accused the
producer of plagiarism.
And apart from demanding a $5 million compensation, Ovuorie is also asking that an
open credit be added to the film while the end credit should be modified to
acknowledge her work as the source material for the movie.
In a letter dated November 3, 2020, signed by Adeola Owoade, Managing Partner of
the law firm, Maverick & Spectre, the journalist claimed that ‘Oloture’ is an adaptation
of her investigative report first published by Zam Magazine, Netherlands and
subsequently Premium Times and others.
Owoade stated that “As you are aware, our Client had, after spending several years
of research on sex trafficking, gone undercover to expose sex trafficking syndicates
and further published the story of her undercover experience in 2014. The
experience was very tragic, dehumanizing and onerous but our Client committed to
the task notwithstanding. Till date, our Client has not fully recovered from the tragic
events she encountered while undercover. It is very worrisome that such a product of
intense pain and commitment could be adapted without proper credit to our Client
and written contract for legal assignment of the copyright, in compliance with
relevant statutes and industry standards.”
The lawyer further claimed that a May 31, 2019 letter entitled ‘Appreciation for
Journalistic Endeavours’ Ovuorie received from EbonyLife and signed by Abudu was
an attempt ”to achieve a waiver of intellectual property rights theft through the
backdoor.”

He added that “It is therefore confounding and at the same time not surprising, that
the appreciation letter contains at the bottom, a 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.”
Besides, Ovuorie’s counsel claimed that ‘Oloture’ “opened up old wounds and
spiralled the nightmares she had been experiencing since the undercover operation
that birthed the story behind the movie. The movie also subjected her a second time
to the condemnation of self-acclaimed critics who queried her resolve to undergo
such undercover operation as a professional journalist. To further embarrass our
Client and trivialize her experiences, your company has severally described the
movie as a “mere fiction”. It is 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 actual events or locales or
persons, living or dead is entirely coincidental and unintentional.” Interestingly, there
is abundant evidence and personal admissions in print, audio recordings and
publications to the effect that the movie was based on the published story of our
Client. However, 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”. It is clear beyond peradventure that the above-
quoted appreciation falls below the industry standard for an end-credit and same has
been coined deliberately in this way, to disingenuously remove the focus and
attention from our Client as the author of the story adapted by your organization.
“ 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
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 after 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.”
The lawyer further contended that “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.”

The restitution for the copyright infringement, the lawyer then said
include“Compensation for copyright infringement in the sum of $5,000,000.00 (Five
Million US Dollars). The immediate inclusion of proper open credit and end credit in
the Movie, acknowledging the adaptation of her work in line with industry standard
and practice;
“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 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”.

Owoade warned that if EbonyLife “failed to respond within seven days aforesaid
within 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.”
But the production company is also not treating the accusation lightly. Its lawyer,
Olaniwun Ajayi, has responded and warned Ovuorie against spreading falsehood
against its client.
The reply dated November 9 read in part: “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.”

The lawyer further noted that EbonyLife had obtained permission from Premium
Times. “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.
“Client is therefore astounded at the claims and several untrue, and disparaging
remarks, statements, and publications made by your Client on various social media
platforms, accusing our Client of “stealing your Client’s story”. This is particularly
surprising, given that your Client had access to a private screening of the Project on
12.06.19, 16 months before its official release on Netflix on 2.10.20.

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