Can You Copyright a Groove?
Can You Copyright a Groove?
Sound Signal

Can You Copyright a Groove?

We unpack the explosive lawsuit rattling reggaeton in Sound Signal's latest Trend of the Week.

This piece originally appeared on June 6, 2024 in our biweekly newsletter, Sound Signal, which identifies emerging artists, scenes, and trending tracks, crafted by the world's best writers and curators. Sign up here to never miss our take on what's next in music.

A new lawsuit has the potential to change reggaeton—and music—as we know it. The heirs of Steely and Clevie, a Jamaican duo who released the 1989 song “Fish Market,” are suing reggaeton giants like Bad Bunny, Karol G, and J Balvin (along with over 100 other defendants) for copyright infringement for borrowing from “Fish Market”’s original production.

The lawsuits claims that the percussion of “Fish Market,” which was later the riddim that Shabba Ranks popularized in 1990 on the hit song “Dem Bow” has been instrumental to over 1,800 reggaeton songs. Last week, a judge denied the motion to dismiss the case. The case is being followed by industry insiders and fans alike for a litany of reasons. No one is denying that reggaeton has been heavily influenced by “Fish Market,” and thus “Dem Bow”—the subgenre is quite literally named after the tune. The overarching question seems to be: can you copyright a groove?

In general, rhythms typically cannot be protected under copyright law. A suit would have to prove that the material in question, “Fish Market” in this case, is “substantially unique or original.” What makes the dembow lawsuit even murkier, is the way rhythm, or riddims, function in Jamaica and Latin America. Reggaeton modeled itself after Jamaica’s innovation of the riddim—in other words, being able to mix and match vocals over a singular instrumentation. In response to the suit, the lawyers of the defendants stated that the push by Steely and Clevie was a “misleading” attempt to, as Billboard put it, “monopolize practically the entire reggaeton musical genre.”  

A win for Steely and Clevie would set a shocking precedent for how sample culture continues to dominate popular music. Should the duo be credited and compensated for their influence and impact on the genre? Of course. This is a phenomenon that happens repeatedly in Black music, and specifically within the confines of dancehall. In 2020, Sister Nancy was finally paid for “Bam Bam” after not receiving royalties for 32 years. Here at Sound Signal, we have enjoyed watching dembow grow—the last issue featured Lomiiel’s bold take on it on “HAY LUPITA.” Regardless of the outcome, the lawsuit is already shining light on the originators who might have been forgotten otherwise.

More Blog Posts

Kelly's Pride Performance Is a Reminder of the Original Meme
Sound Signal

Kelly's Pride Performance Is a Reminder of the Original Meme

Hannah Elliott
Sound Signal's latest Trend of the Week revisits a defining song from the early days of online comedy.
Who Benefits from HYBE's Civil War?
Sound Signal

Who Benefits from HYBE's Civil War?

Rachel Saywitz
We unravel the war rumbling within a K-pop juggernaut for Sound Signal's latest Trend of the Week.
The DIY Rollout
Sound Signal

The DIY Rollout

Leah Mandel
We unpack the success of Cindy Lee's (non)promotional strategy in Sound Signal's latest Trend of the Week.

Let's Talk

Do you have a project that would benefit from a world-class team of data analysts, pop culture writers, and marketing strategists? We’d love to hear from you.

Get in Touch