Theft of an Entire Genre? Court Rejects Dismissal Motions in Reggaeton Copyright Infringement Suit Against Over 50 Artists

reggaeton copyright lawsuit
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reggaeton copyright lawsuit
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A federal court has rejected multiple motions to dismiss a reggaeton copyright lawsuit filed over contemporary artists’ alleged infringement of pioneering works. Photo Credit: Wesley Tingey

What do Karol G, Justin Bieber, Luis Fonsi, Daddy Yankee, Diplo, Jason Derulo, Anuel AA, Anitta, and Drake have in common? For one thing, they’re being accused of infringing on reggaeton itself by borrowing from “groundbreaking” decades-old releases without permission.

Those allegations stem from a lengthy infringement action levied by reggae musicians themselves and the estates of different reggae professionals, who are said to have played a key role in the development of the genre as well as reggaeton.

Chief among these plaintiffs is one Clevie (real name Cleveland Constantine Browne), a Jamaica-based individual who’s purportedly known for “pioneering the use of drum machines in reggae.” In the interest of relative brevity, the present complaint actually stems from three separate cases: two filed in 2021 against a total of 34 artist defendants, the third submitted in May of 2022 against 24 more defendants.

The actions were consolidated in July of the same year – for a cumulative total of around 60 artist defendants and north of 1,000 allegedly infringing works. This includes the initially mentioned acts and, on top of that, all manner of companies – such as the major labels’ publishing units, Hipgnosis, Concord, and BMG, to name just a few.

Once again in the interest of relative concision, Clevie and one Steely (real name Wycliffe Anthony Johnson) formed a group called Steely & Clevie, which then put out “Fish Market” (1989).

Written and recorded by the duo, that “groundbreaking” instrumental track features “an original drum pattern that differentiates it from prior works,” with “a programmed kick, snare, and hi-hat playing a one bar pattern,” among different things, per the plaintiffs. Another Steely & Clevie effort, “Dem Bow,” proved “a massive hit, and a critical and commercial success, in the international reggae dancehall scene,” according to the legal text.

Additionally, the much-copied track – “Dem Bow” has allegedly “been widely copied in songs in the reggaeton music genre” – set the stage for a 1990 derivative called “Pounder Riddim,” consisting of elements of both the previously noted Steely & Clevie works, the plaintiffs said. From there, “Pounder” made an even bigger splash in different commercially prominent releases across reggaeton.

Predictably, those releases ultimately extended to a variety of projects from the defendants, who have allegedly sampled “Pounder” numerous times. “Pounder has been widely copied and/or sampled,” the plaintiffs spelled out, clarifying for good measure the unapproved nature of the alleged usages.

Unsurprisingly, the defendants fired back against the far-reaching suit, seeking a dismissal for several reasons. Multiple twists and turns later, the court in a May 28th order approved certain of the dismissal motions and rejected others.

Beginning on the dismissal side, the court granted a request to toss contributory and vicarious arguments for failure to state a claim. The plaintiffs failed to distinguish which parties “materially contributed to or induced the underlying infringing conduct or had the right and ability to supervise the underlying infringing conduct,” the relevant order reads in part.

Running with the lack of specificity at hand, the court nevertheless granted the plaintiffs leave to amend this component of the suit. Furthermore, other dismissal arguments were unable to bring about the desired result for the defendants; perceived issues with the plaintiffs’ copyrights would best be addressed down the line, the presiding judge explained in more words.

Dismissing due to the recent timing of the copyright registrations on the plaintiffs’ decades-old works might simply compel the refiling of parts of the suit, which the court has spent “a substantial amount of time and resources managing,” per the order. And the defendants’ argument that the “Dem Bow” copyright solely includes lyrics would be “inappropriate for resolution at this stage.”

Perhaps most interestingly, the court also rejected the defendants’ claims that the reggaeton musical elements in question aren’t protectable at all.

The same argument has proven effective in separate copyright battles, but here, the judge summed up that the plaintiffs had “sufficiently alleged the protectability of the drum pattern, interplay of compositional elements, or the combination of these elements.”

In other words, the massive copyright action is proceeding, and it’ll be worth closely monitoring the case in the approaching months.