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Copyright lawsuit moves forward against reggaeton genre's top artists

Big names like Bad Bunny sued for allegedly jacking a beat. Is the genre's signature rhythm off-limits now?

A recent decision by U.S. District Judge André Birotte Jr. has reignited a heated debate within the music industry. The judge denied motions to dismiss a consolidated copyright infringement lawsuit targeting over 1,000 reggaeton songs by some of the genre's biggest names. The plaintiffs, Jamaican producers Cleveland "Clevie" Browne and the estate of Wycliffe "Steely" Johnson, allege that these artists illegally used the instrumental percussion from their 1989 song "Fish Market."

The lawsuit, which combines multiple individual filings, accuses artists ranging from global superstars like Bad Bunny and J Balvin to rising talents like Danny Ocean of infringing upon the unique drum pattern featured in "Fish Market." This pattern, characterized by a specific arrangement of kick, snare, and hi-hat sounds, forms the rhythmic backbone of the song.

The defense, mounted by lawyers representing the artists, argues that the lawsuit seeks to monopolize a common rhythmic element in reggaeton. They claim that the percussion loop is a fundamental building block of the genre, similar to the 12-bar blues progression or the bossa nova rhythm.

Stay tuned to learn more!

What is copyright infringement in music?

Copyright law protects original creative expression, including musical compositions. This protection extends a song’s melody, harmony, rhythm, and lyrics. However, copyright does not protect basic musical elements or commonplace techniques.

The crux of this case hinges on whether the drum pattern in "Fish Market" transcends a generic building block and qualifies as a protectable element under copyright law.

Two men in sunglasses posing together at an American Music Awards event, exuding style and confidence.

Similar cases and the "blurred lines" precedent

This situation resembles the infamous "Blurred Lines" copyright case of 2013. The estate of Marvin Gaye sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for allegedly copying the "feel" and musical elements of Gaye's song "Got to Give It Up." In a controversial verdict, the jury found copyright infringement, highlighting the potential for intangible elements like musical feeling to be protected.

The "Blurred Lines" case, however, dealt with melody and overall song structure. The reggaeton lawsuit focuses solely on a rhythmic element, which raises a different legal question.

The future of the lawsuit and its potential impact to reggaeton

Judge Birotte Jr.'s decision allows the lawsuit to proceed, meaning both sides will now delve deeper into presenting evidence. The plaintiffs must convince the court that the "Fish Market" drum pattern possesses the necessary originality and distinctiveness to warrant copyright protection.

The defense will likely argue that the pattern is an unprotectable element, essential to the creation of reggaeton music. They also may call expert witnesses specializing in music theory and genre history to dissect the rhythmic components at issue.

The outcome of this lawsuit could significantly impact the music industry, particularly on genre-specific rhythmic elements. A win for the plaintiffs could set a precedent that restricts using certain foundational beats, potentially impacting the creative process for future reggaeton artists.

Conversely, a victory for the defense would reaffirm that basic rhythmic building blocks are not subject to copyright protection, allowing for continued artistic freedom within the genre.

The Importance of Fair Use

Regardless of the lawsuit's outcome, the situation underscores the importance of fair use. Fair use is a legal doctrine that permits the unlicensed use of copyrighted material in certain circumstances, such as for criticism, commentary, parody, or news reporting.

In music production, fair use often comes into play with sampling, where a portion of another song is incorporated into a new creation. If an artist uses a small portion of the "Fish Market" drum pattern in a transformative way, it could fall under fair use protection.

The reggaeton copyright lawsuit is a complex legal battle with far-reaching implications for the music industry. As the case progresses, it will be interesting to see how the courts weigh the originality of the disputed element against the creative freedom inherent in artistic expression. Ultimately, the decision could set a precedent that impacts many reggaeton and how music is created across genres.

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