Steely & Clevie’s Reggaeton Copyright Lawsuit Faces First Major Hurdle In Court

One hundred and seven of the almost 170 defendants in Steely & Clevie Productions’ copyright lawsuit filed three motions on Thursday (June 15) to dismiss the case.

The three California court filings, obtained by DancehallMag, reveal the defendants’ primary defense: the drum and bass elements allegedly pirated from Steely & Clevie‘s 1989 Fish Market riddim and used in almost 1,700 Reggaeton songs are commonplace and not subject to copyright protection under U.S. law.

According to them, the Jamaican producers – Cleveland ‘Clevie’ Browne and the estates of the late Wycliffe ‘Steely’ Johnson and Ephraim ‘Count Shelly’ Barrett – cannot claim ownership of the basic musical elements that define nearly all Reggaeton music created over the last 30 years.

The first motion was filed by WK Records, Pitbull’s Mr. 305 Inc., Yandel & Wisin, Maluma, Myke Tower, and nine other defendants responsible for 376 songs named in the suit.

These defendants put forth an intriguing analogy: the rhythm of Reggaeton, they argue, is akin to the defining and foundational features of other musical genres – from the “down beats” of Reggae to the four standard chords of Rock music (E, B, C minor, and A), and even the recurrent rhythmic patterns found in Salsa music.
“Plaintiffs claim ownership of an entire genre of basic core music – the ‘rhythm of “reggaeton” based upon simple, rote, unprotectable common music elements, which are nothing more than common drum beats of single notes,” they wrote in their motion to dismiss the case.

Puerto Rican superstar Bad Bunny and his label Rimas Music, responsible for 77 songs named in the suit, presented a similar defense.

In their motion to dismiss, they argued that Steely & Clevie’s lawsuit “impermissibly seeks to monopolize practically the entire Reggaeton musical genre for themselves by claiming copyright ownership of certain legally irrelevant and/or unprotectable, purported musical composition elements.”
They cited precedent cases where “courts have been consistent in finding rhythm [resulting from drum patterns and bass] to be unprotectable.”

The WK Records and Bad Bunny defendants urged the court to dismiss the case, contending that no reasonable jury could find the 1,700 songs substantially similar to Steely & Clevie’s “old and obscure” Fish Market.

Meanwhile, the third motion to dismiss was filed by Luis Fonsi, Justin Bieber, Daddy Yankee, Pitbull, Rauw Alejandro, El Chombo, Jason Derulo, Enrique Iglesias, Ricky Martin, Stefflon Don, and 79 other defendants, who are represented by Pryor Cashman LLP.

Update: Since this article was published, the following defendants, who are not represented by Pryor Cashman LLP, have co-signed the law firm’s motion to dismiss.

Drake, and Sound 1.0 Catalogue LP (improperly sued as OVO Sound LLC)
DJ Snake and Empire Distribution, Inc
Cinq Music Group, LLC and Cinq Music Publishing, LLC
Rich Music, Inc.
DJ Nelson and Jay Wheeler
They argued that Steely & Clevie were trying to obtain “ownership of an entire genre of music by claiming exclusive rights to the rhythm and other unprotectable musical elements common to all “reggaeton”-style songs.”

They also said the lawsuit should be dismissed for numerous procedural reasons, including the claim that Steely & Clevie do not have standing to assert infringement claims for any of the allegedly derivative instrumentals based on the Fish Market.

Steely & Clevie’s 228-page complaint, the first version of which was filed in 2021, had traced the trajectory through which nearly all of Reggaeton allegedly appropriated elements from derivative versions of the original Fish Market. It started with the fact that Shabba Ranks‘ Dem Bow (1990), produced by the late Bobby ‘Digital’ Dixon, had used the Fish Market beat from Jamaican vocalist Gregory Peck’s Poco Man Jam, one of the 1989 tracks on Steely & Clevie’s original riddim.
The 1,700 songs at issue in the lawsuit were released between 1995 and 2021, and they have amassed tens of billions of views on YouTube and many RIAA Platinum and Latin Platinum certifications in the United States.

They include Drake’s One Dance with Wizkid and Kyla; Drake and Bad Bunny’s Mía; Luis Fonsi’s Despacito Remix with Justin Bieber and Daddy Yankee and his Échame La Culpa with Demi Lovato; El Chombo’s Dame Tu Cosita with Cutty Ranks; Daddy Yankee’s Dura, Rompe, Gasoline and Shaky Shaky; DJ Snake’s Taki Taki with Selena Gomez, Ozuna, Cardi B; Pitbull’s We Are One (Ole Ola); and more.