Over Protection of Folklore? – A Review of the Copyright Act of Ghana 2005

The purpose of copyright laws are to protect the work and incentive of authors (1). Besides this, it specifies the limits of rights held, allowing books and other works to fall into public domain when the limits are reached, and to be adapted, reused, and refined by others (1, 2). This largely promotes creativity, spread and variety of the knowledge and literature. It also encourages reinvention of old ideas; typically when a story, book, etc. falls into the domain, new authors, artists or editors take the opportunity to represent the book or story to either portray modern times, better reflect the issues the story is supposed to address or even find ways to highlight parts of the story unnoticed by the originator of the work. This occurs frequently in stories but is most common in film adaptations of literature (3); a story or piece of literature is therefore viewed through different lenses and reinvented in different art forms. Old classics are reproduced to suit societal changes by reconstruction to be, for example, more inclusive in terms of age, gender, race, education, etc.

Folklore is such work that predates modernity. Britannica describes folklore to be traditional or cultural orally transmitted literature or material culture (ornaments, arts, tools, religious images, etc.), but is usually restricted to oral traditional literature (4). Folklore originates from cultures and ethnicities and are as old as these ethnicities.

There are a number of ethnic groups in Ghana with some having larger portions of the population than others, and each one has its own oral traditional literature and folklore (5). The Akan happen to be the largest with the most popular folklore, Anansesem. Anansesem is a collection of stories following the life and experiences of a lead character spider, Ananse (6). The stories have been passed on through storytelling to children and have been used in many ways to entertain in publications (7) and television (8). By the fireside is one such show that dramatized the Ananse stories on Ghana Today Television. Anansesem and all other Ghanaian folklore, regardless of their origin, are owned in perpetuity by the state under the 2005 copyright Act (9). The copyright therefore has no limit and forever remains with the state to use and control.

It is clearly stated in Section 4 of the Copyright Act of Ghana (Act 690) (10) that “the rights of folklore are vested in the President on behalf of and in trust for the people of the Republic”. The act also requires all persons, nationals or non-nationals, to report an intention to and attain paid permission to use Ghanaian folklore for any commercial purpose. So far, Ghana is the only country in West Africa that has such conditions placed on its folklore (1). The purpose of these conditions, as is expected of any law, is to protect and maintain the integrity of Ghanaian folklore and prevent inappropriate use.

Inadequate protection of cultural art and products has deeply affected many industries in Ghana, an example is the textile industry (11). Kente and other traditional fabrics are mass produced in some better industrialized countries and sold even into the Ghanaian market at extremely cheaper prices, and they are in a neck-to-neck competition with small businesses engaged in the same trade. Therefore by enforcing paid permission to use Ghanaian folklore, similar situations are prevented and these stories have now become a source of revenue for the state, which is great. However, I am of the opinion that this act has and will continue to suppress the creativity of Ghanaian authors and artist.

Prior to the 2005 Copyright Act, Ghanaian artists and authors have used and reinterpreted folklore in creative and entertaining ways without much restriction, especially in theatre and television. By the fireside and Anansegoro are the most common examples. Anansegoro was developed by Theodora Efua Sutherland, the playwright, as a play on the already existing Anansesem stories (12). She added music, singing and dancing to the stories and composed plays which she published. Other authors and playwrights also made incredible and creative use of Ghanaian folklore in their work(In the chest of a woman by Efo Kodjo Mawugbe and Ananse in the Land of Idiots by Yaw Asare). Internationally, characters and bits of Ghanaian folklore have been used in books written by non-nationals.

The 1985 Copyright Act (13) also gaves the state hold of folklore copyright in perpetuity and stated sanctions for the sale of folklore work produced outside Ghana. The 2005 Copyright act is however very specific to dispel any doubt on who is allowed to use Ghanaian folklore. Section 64 of the 2005 Copyright Act states that if “a person” wants to use folklore in any commercial way, he or she needs to make a request to the National Folklore Board and pay “a fee determined by the board”. “A person” here refers to anyone at all, whether a Ghanaian or not. Also “a fee determined by the board” suggests a fee that is not fixed and probably based on the board’s perception of what the commercial use is and probably also how much it will earn. The act is going all out in attempts to protect Ghanaian folklore which is commendable. But it fails to notice and address the issue of access by Ghanaians who are ideally part owners of these folklores; if they belong to the state, then they belong to all Ghanaians. The sections of the act seeking to protect folklores should not only do that and monetize the folklore, but also recognize the interests of people who share in its ownership.

Publishing is a capital intensive business and funds are required throughout the process. Larger international publishers within and outside the country could afford to pay for a license to use folklore but what happens to the small upcoming publisher with brilliant folklore ideas but very little money? Publishing is also a cultural product and folklore published internationally cannot be expected to be rendered exactly as it would be done by local publishers who would still attempt to maintain the authenticity of the elements of the story regardless. A foreign publisher, able to acquire permission to use Ghanaian folklore, can adapt the stories to fit publishing styles and purposes intended to attract certain audiences and make the most revenue and can lose the actual sense of the stories in the process. An example is the spelling of the name of the spider in Anansesem. Most international publishers spell it as Anansi insetad of Ananse which may seem a small and irrelevant detail, but this is years of history and details are important. The stories of Ananse and other folktales are oral tradition and it is important that the original stories are preserved. This is where the local, small publisher becomes necessary. To be able to freely publish these stories, is to be able to preserve the original folktales.

Besides the original rendering of these folklore, Ghanaian authors and publishers can also adapt and add to the stories as Efua Sutherland and others once did. Her creativity was possible because she had the opportunity to freely reimagine and explore the Anansesem whilst still maintaining the cultural integrity of the stories. The creative writing section of the country’s publishing industry is in need of a boost and these folklores are a great way to boost authorship in the area. Encouraged authors could create collections of folklore stories, and there are so many stories to be told

Revenue generation is undisputedly important for a developing nation such as Ghana but it is wise to be mindful of what suffers at the expense of revenue generation. Maybe parliament would like to revisit section 64 of Ghana’s copyright act, 2005.


[1] ​Collins Stephen. “Who owns Ananse? The tangled web of folklore copyright in Ghana.” Journal of African Cultural Studies, Taylor anf Francis, Published online: 21 November, 2016, Volume 30, Issue 2, pp. 178–191, DOI 10.1080/13696815.2016.1256121

[2]​Copyright. Reviewed by Will Kenton. Investopedia, May 9 2019. https://www.investopedia.com/terms/c/copyright.asp. Accessed December 4, 2019.

[3]​List of modernised adaptations of old works. Wikipedia. https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/list_of_modernised_adaptations_of_old_works. Accessed December 4, 2019.

[4] ​Folklore. Encyclopaedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/topic/folklore-academic-discipline. Accessed December 4, 2019.

[5]​Ghanaian language, culture, customs and etiquette. Commisceo Global. https://www.commisceo-global.com/resources/country-guides/ghana-guide. Accessed December 6, 2019.

[6]​What is Anansesem? IGI Global. https://www.igi-global.com/dictionary/tackling-the-preservation-of-african-tales-in-the-tecghnological-era/5707. Accessed December 4, 2019.

[7]​Ansaa-Adjei Abyna. Anansesem: the adventures of Kweku Ananse, the most cunning spider that ever lived. OhuiAgbenya Allotey. 1 January, 2013

[8]​Pen It Multimedia. By the fireside-Legendary Ghanaian TV show.6 December, 2018. https://m.facebook.com/penitmultimedia/posts/3338001527218341. Accessed December 6, 2019.

[9]​Copyright Act of Ghana, 2005. Act 690. Accessed December 5, 2019. Accessed December 4, 2019.

[10]​Yepoka Yeebo (Contributor). Chinese counterfeits leave Ghanaian textiles hanging by a thread. The Christian Science Monitor. https://www.google.com/amp/s/www.csmonitor.com/layout/set/amphtml/World/Africa/2015/0531/Chinese-counterfeits-leave-Ghanaian-textiles-hanging-by-a-thread. Accessed December 5, 2019.

[11]​Evans Asante and Johnson Edu. “From Anansesemto Anansegoro: ‘Literarising’ Akan Folktales”. International Journal of Advanced Research and Development, Volume 3, Issue 1, pp348-353. Accessed December 4, 2019.

[12]​Copyright Law of Ghana, 1985. Accessed December5, 2019. Accessed December 8, 2019.

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