Communique 08: Who owns the story?

What do BBC’s Sex for Grades documentary and EbonyLife’s Netflix movie, Oloture, have in common? Let’s find out.

As the curtains fell on 2020, a small controversy peeped out from BBC Africa. Nkiru Mordi, the lead reporter on Sex for Grades, the British broadcaster’s hugely popular and percussive documentary on sexual harassment in universities, was accused of not “being the brain behind the project” and criticised for hogging the spotlight.

Mordi has never publicly claimed to be the “brain behind the project”. Nonetheless, she has won massive recognition and several awards for her work, including an Emmy nomination and an MTV EMA Changemaker award. Whether she intended or not, her prominence in the limelight created an impression that the documentary was her story when, in actuality, it is the BBC’s. Mordi experienced sexual harassment first-hand in the university (and ended up not graduating). This created a potentially compelling storyline and a perfect lead character.

Consequently, the BBC hired her as a freelancer and made her the lead reporter. However, a Premium Times report reveals a pattern within the BBC where in-house staff are often sidelined for big projects like this documentary. As a result, very rarely do the staff get any public credit for their work. This was not the case with Mordi. She did the job she was hired to, got into the trenches when she needed to, and has since reaped the rewards.

At no point did her non-ownership of the documentary detract from the awards and recognition. This is not unexpected. The story is (mainly) told in her voice and with her face, and her previous experience provided extra motivation. This was a risky move but has proved to be highly rewarding. In addition to the awards, Mordi has accumulated extensive social capital. Still, in legal terms, the story was never hers. At least not in a way that the law recognises.

The anatomy of story ownership

In journalism, a story is credited to the person whose name is on the byline. If multiple journalists work on the story, there are multiple bylines. But ultimately, the copyright story belongs to the media company they work for (Section 9, subsection 3 of the Nigerian Copyright Act).

At the core of this topic for me is the controversy surrounding the Netflix movie, Oloture. It is an EbonyLife production, and (in my opinion) considerably based on the investigative report of Tobore Mit-Ovuorie, a former employee of Premium Times.

The journalist claims that Oloture is a rip-off of her life story. She is suing EbonyLife, demanding $5 million in compensation for copyright infringement, the inclusion of open and end credits that state that the movie is based mainly on her investigative story, and "restriction on any further exploitation of [her] published life story by [the company]". While I think her case is meritless, her grievances can be substantiated.

EbonyLife fulfilled its legal obligations by getting authorisation from Mit-Ovuorie's former employers to adapt some elements of her report into a film. She does not have a strong legal argument. However, beyond legality and hysteria, can we make a case for ethos? Knowing that the investigative report isn’t just a collection of news items or impersonal information, but a story infused with personal, near-death experiences, born of a journey that sent its author into a downward spiral, almost breaking her, a journey that traumatised her and pushed her into rehabilitation.

There is a philosophical element to this worth considering. In 2009, author and journalist Wendy Welch wrote a paper titled 'Who Owns the Story?'. She examines the concepts of individual and cultural ownership within folklore studies and the rationale that storytellers use to claim rights to a story. This is beyond copyrighting, lawsuits, and courtrooms. It is a matter of ethics. It goes beyond what the law says is right or wrong and explores how we think about essence.

Welch writes (emphasis mine):

Suppose Ann tells the story of her gynaecologist to a professional storyteller friend. That teller may ask Ann for permission to retell it publicly, with potential changes to make the story more performable. These changes could include removing or altering names, relocating the story in another time or place, and omitting or clarifying details for contexts that might include people who have less experience with gynaecologists. The friend may ask to tell it in [the] first-person, as if it had happened to her, or continue telling it as happening to Ann. She may seek Ann's advice, or consider how she crafts it an artistic decision in which Ann should not be involved. All these factors depend on, at the very least, her relationship to Ann, her expected venue for the story, and her personal ethics.

Add to this the fact that, in the professional storyteller's perspective on ownership, one widely accepted taboo appears: Telling someone else's personal story as one's own is bad behaviour unless permission has been given by the person to whom the story "really happened" and in some cases negotiation made regarding [the] use of first-person (p. 5).”

EbonyLife claims “Oloture is a work of fiction inspired by a variety of true events.” The company is well within its rights to say so. Still, it is difficult to see the many similarities between Mit-Ovuorie’s report (and her life story) and the movie and not consider the possibility that the latter is heavily influenced by the former.

Maybe EbonyLife and its CEO, Mo Abudu, are aware of this. Perhaps it explains why they reached out to Mit-Ovuorie, commending her work and pledging 5% of the revenue from the movie’s cinema run to her NGO (Media Initiative Against Human Trafficking and Women Rights Abuse). But that did not happen because of the COVID-19 pandemic and the closure of cinemas that came with the lockdown. Abudu says Mit-Ovuorie was not the only one EbonyLife made the gesture to, but none of the other parties has their stories so prominent in the film.

Welch also writes that “Individual ownership becomes somewhat clearer when the story told is a personal story, including a story based on the experiences of others, yet told in the first person (p. 4).” 

While Mit-Ovuorie has no legal claims to the report, the story is her experience and that experience intrinsically is hers. Therefore, a retelling of it (in any form or variation) requires her active participation. If she has lived it, she at least deserves a say in how it is retold. She also deserves far more recognition and guerdon for her work.

“I believe that if one is writing about a person or an organisation, they should have some ownership as well,” Laurie Garvin, a New York Times reader, comments in one of its opinion pieces. 

She is right. When an element unique to a person’s life is to be commercialised, they should have a say in the matter. And if this argument does not stand because of a law, then it should stand for the sake of ethics. When someone puts their life on the line for something, they should benefit significantly from it if the chance arises.

If one journalist is allowed to enjoy the benefits of a high-risk-high-reward project that she has no legal ownership of, then is it out of order for another journalist to demand the same?

Updates:

  1. An earlier version of this essay which referenced section 10(3) of the NCA has been corrected to read ‘section 9’.

  2. I have published a rejoinder to this essay. It is a response from an intellectual property lawyer who provides another perspective to this argument. Read it here.

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