Copyright infringement lawsuit against Bad Bunny, Karol G and others can move forward, judge rules

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A copyright infringement lawsuit that could significantly impact the reggaeton genre can move forward, a federal judge ruled Tuesday.

The consolidated lawsuit, filed in April 2023 by Cleveland “Clevie” Browne and the estate of Wycliffe “Steely” Johnson in 2023, alleges that more than 100 artists illegally sampled or copied the drum pattern of the Jamaican producers’ 1989 instrumental track “Fish Market.”

Among the list of defendants are Bad Bunny, Karol G, Daddy Yankee and J Balvin, as well as record labels Universal Music Latin Entertainment and Machete Records.

The plaintiffs claim that the beat is “original” to them, and that it was “groundbreaking upon its creation,” describing it as “a programmed kick, snare and hi-hat playing a one bar pattern; percussion instruments, including a tambourine playing through the entire bar, a synthesized ‘tom’ playing on beats one and three, and timbales that play a roll at the end of every second bar and free improvisation over the pattern for the duration of the song; and a synthesized Bb (b-flat) bass note on beats one and three of each bar, which follows the synthesized ‘tom’ pattern.”

The drum machine beat was further popularized by Shabba Ranks’ 1990 “Dem Bow,” a staple in the reggae dancehall scene. Brown and Johnson co-own the “Dem Bow’’ composition along with Ranks. That same year, Dennis “The Menace” Thompson used the instrumentation for his popular “Pounder Riddim” and subsequently for “Pounder Dub Mix II,” which has become the backdrop for the reggaeton music genre.

“Dem Bow’s instrumental is ‘iconic’ and has been widely copied in songs in the reggaeton music genre,” the lawsuit states.

In June 2023, attorneys for the defendants asked judge André Birotte Jr. of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California to dismiss the case, arguing that the plaintiffs were seeking to monopolize the reggaeton genre after “30 years of inaction.”

On Tuesday, Birotte denied most of the motions to dismiss the case. Courthouse News was first to report on the ruling.

“The Court finds that Plaintiffs have sufficiently alleged the protectability of the drum pattern, interplay of compositional elements, or the combination of these elements,” Birortte wrote in his ruling, “It is plausible that these elements are ‘qualitatively significant’ to their works.”

Birotte also noted that the court was “unprepared at this stage to examine the history of the reggaeton and dancehall genres and dissect the genres’ features to determine whether the elements common between the allegedly infringing works and the Subject Works are commonplace, and thus unprotectable,” adding that it would need to hear expert testimony on the matter.

The case will now proceed to the discovery stage.

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