“Fish Market” Lawsuit Can Move Forward With Claim That Over 1,800 Reggaetón Songs Ripped Off Steely & Clevie Riddim

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The entire genre of reggaeton is built on a single beat, a syncopated but militaristic drum pattern known as the dembow riddim. Over the past few decades, reggaeton has emerged from a regional Spanish-language style to a global commercial powerhouse. So what’s it going to mean if someone can assert ownership over the dembow riddim? Because of a new lawsuit, we might find out.

In 1989, Jamaican dancehall producers Cleveland “Clevie” Browne and Wycliffe “Steely” Johnson released an instrumental track called “Fish Market,” and it’s the first known usage of what’s become known as the dembow riddim. In Jamaica, it’s long been tradition for dancehall and reggae artists to record dozens of different tracks over the same riddim, or backing track. Jamaican star Shabba Ranks recorded his 1990 track “Dem Bow” over Clevie & Steely’s Fish Market riddim, and that’s what’s given the beat its name. Later that same year, another Jamaican producer, Dennis “The Menace” Halliburton, used a variation of that drum pattern on his own Pounder riddim. When the reggaeton genre started up in Puerto Rico in the ’90s, producers sampled their drums from Halliburton’s instrumental track “Pounder Dub Mix II,” and that drum track still forms the basis of the genre.

The notion of copyright has rarely been a big concern in dancehall and reggaeton, but a new lawsuit from Steely & Clevie might change that. As The Guardian reports, Steely & Clevie recently filed a copyright infringement lawsuit that targets dozens of defendants, including many giant global stars. The lawsuit claims that over 1,800 reggaeton tracks stole their protected drum pattern — a conservative estimate, honestly — and specifically cites 56 different tracks that use the dembow riddim. The lawsuit includes songs like Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina,” the track that broke reggaeton on a global level, and the Luis Fonsi/Daddy Yankee collaboration “Despacito,” which became the biggest global hit in reggaeton history, especially when Justin Bieber jumped on the remix that held the #1 spot on the Hot 100 for nearly four months in 2017. The suit names Bieber, Yankee, and Fonsi, as well as artists like Bad Bunny, J Balvin, Rauw Alejandro, and Stefflon Don. A number of record labels are also defendants in this case.

Now, Courthouse News Service reports that Steely & Clevie’s lawsuit Steely & Clevie’s case has overcome a major obstacle. On Tuesday, US District Judge André Birotte Jr. denied a number of motions to dismiss the consolidated lawsuit. Lawyers for the many defendants argued that Steely & Clevie don’t have any rights to sue for the use of the Pounder Riddim or “Pounder Dub Mix II,” but Birotte ruled that Steely & Clevie have a legally valid claim, which will allow the lawsuit to move forward. The judge said:

While it does not follow that a defendant inevitably infringes the “Fish Market” copyright because the defendant allegedly copied “Dem Bow,” “Pounder Riddim,” or “Pounder Dub Mix II,” the copying of material derived from protected elements of “Fish Market” will constitute an infringement of the “Fish Market” copyright regardless of whether the defendant copied directly from “Fish Market” or indirectly through a derivative work

The judge also ruled that the drum pattern used in all those reggaeton tracks is original enough for copyright protection. Steely & Clevie filed a copyright for “Pounder Dub Mix II” after filing the lawsuit, claiming that the beat is “substantially similar, if not virtually identical” to “Fish Market.” In most cases, you have to claim ownership over a track before filing a lawsuit, but Birotte ruled that this is “a narrow circumstance” where it could be OK. The case still has a long way to go before it’s decided, but its implications could be massive.