San Diego Tijuana mayor Jesús González Reyes faces the prospect of finding a new job come December 1 when mayor-elect Jorge Hank takes office. González also faces the possibility, albeit remote, of going to jail. The twofold crime: publishing a play called El Viaje without the permission of its author Rafael Pérez Barrón; and publishing it in mutilated form. Both are federal felonies in Mexico.
On a sparkling late-September morning, Pérez, dressed in faded jeans, light-blue oxford, and navy blue blazer, strides into Victor's restaurant in Tijuana's Rio Zone like a man who's got the world on a string. And why not? He stands to make a chunk of money from the city's copyright infringement. All smiles and pleasant greetings, he takes a seat at a round table at the opposite corner from the door and orders un cafecito from the waitress. His wears his salt-and-pepper hair in a flattop style; on his jaw, three days of graying beard grows.
The trouble started in May of this year, when the municipal government's Art and Culture Institute held its annual book fair on Avenida Revolución. Pérez attended the book fair, and there he found that the city had published and was selling an anthology of ten local authors for 50 pesos each. "I'm a local author," he thought as he flipped open the anthology. "When I opened the book," Pérez recalls, "and saw the list of the authors that were included, I saw my name. And then I saw that they had published El Viaje."
El Viaje is the middle of a trilogy of plays about a fictional recurring apparition along a stretch of highway. As a literary device, Pérez opens the plays with fictional testimonials from people, other than the main characters of the play, to whom the woman clothed in white had appeared. "But a couple of days later," Pérez says, "I decided to read what the city had published, and when I got to my play, the testimony part was not there. Based on the Mexican federal copyright law, that is mutilating the original material, which is a federal crime. That covers all writers of the world. Since there wasn't any solution because the book had already been published, what I did was I went to the PGR [the federal district attorney] and filed a suit for both crimes; because it wasn't published with my permission, and then because it was mutilated." Pérez's suit asked for five million pesos (around $500,000); two million in damages, and three million for the copyright violation. Mayor González responded to the suit in writing. "All he said," says Pérez with an air of shock, "is 'It's not our custom to pay the writers. We feel we're doing them a favor.'"
Asked whether the suit is about money or protecting the integrity of his work, Pérez responds, "It's both." When he first saw it, "It didn't really matter," he says. "Well, they have already published it, it doesn't matter; let them do it. But now that I see that it has been mutilated, now I want them to pay me as a writer and for the crime of mutilation. I am asking for two things: to repair the damage and the copyright rights."
Asked whether he approached the city about redressing the violations privately, Pérez throws his head back and laughs. "Yes, I did, and they laughed. I talked to a legal representative of the city. He was a very nice, very likable person. But when I asked for the five million pesos, he politely said no. The only thing that he offered was to put some ads in the newspaper thanking me for allowing them to publish the work and admitting that they had involuntarily mutilated the book. They also offered me 40,000 pesos. They asked me not to make it public because then the other writers would want money too. I told them no. It was a joke. I told them that the least that I would accept would be two million pesos to repair the damage. But they wouldn't do that. They decided to take their chances in court."
Pérez believes the city was operating under the theory that "by publishing your work, you would smile and be happy. And I admit, 12 or 13 years ago, when I finished my first book, I would have been very happy if they would have published it. I took my book around to everybody, but nobody published it; not the city, not the state, none of them published it. In Mexico it is more about who you know or who your friends are. That is how you get published."
But Pérez won a Baja California state award for literature in 1994, and his apparition trilogy was published by the state (and copyrighted) in 1996. In 2001, he won the national Manuel Herrera award for literature for his play Mujer en Espiral ("Woman in a Spiral"). "Now," Pérez says, "I have won awards; I have written ten works that have been published. I'm not really interested in being published for free. But here they are printing my work, and they are publishing it wrong."
In contrast to the municipal government's apparent indifference to copyright law, the federal district attorney's office, Pérez says, is taking the case very seriously. "Publishing without permission and mutilating original material are felonies in Mexico." He holds his hands four inches apart and smiles from ear to ear. "They have a file this thick on the case."
A representative from the city's Art and Culture Institute has already been deposed in the case. Pérez hopes for a court date before the end of October. "It shouldn't have taken this long," he says. "I filed the case in May. But in the border region, the PGR has more important cases with drug cartels and migrant smugglers."
In theory, Mayor González, or an underling at the Institute of Art and Culture, could serve three years in prison for the violation, though Pérez concedes it's unlikely anybody will serve time. "They'll get off on a bond," he says.
And the five million pesos he's asking for? Pérez laughs and his eyes twinkle. "I could get five million, I could get three pesos. That's up to the judge."