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Judge Rules Lawsuit Against Bad Bunny Targeting Hundreds of Reggaeton Songs Can Move Forward

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A federal judge ruled Wednesday (May 29) that a sprawling copyright lawsuit can move forward with accusations that nearly 2,000 reggaeton songs — including hits by Bad Bunny, Karol G and dozens of others — all infringed a single 1989 song that allegedly spawned the so-called “dem bow” rhythm.

The huge infringement case, filed by Cleveland “Clevie” Browne and the heirs of Wycliffe “Steely” Johnson, claims that their 1989 song, “Fish Market,” was the source of dem bow — the boom-ch-boom-chick, boom-ch-boom-chick percussion featured in nearly every reggaeton song.


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Demanding that the case be dismissed, Bad Bunny’s lawyers argued last year that Steely & Clevie’s massive case “seeks to monopolize practically the entire reggaetón musical genre for themselves” by claiming copyright control over “unprotectable” musical elements.

But in the lawsuit’s first key decision, Judge André Birotte Jr. denied that motion on Wednesday, ruling that it was too early in the case to make those kinds of complex rulings and that Steely & Clevie had made a strong enough argument to move forward: “It is premature at this stage to find that the musical elements alleged are insufficiently original or indeed unprotectable.”

Notably, the judge also hinted that he might not be particularly receptive to such arguments when it’s time to rule on them. At one point, he warned that he “rejects” the idea that the massive success of a particular song could be used as a “double-edged sword” that would also void its copyrights.

“The court recognizes the practice of musical borrowing, and in doing so, cannot merely conclude that because the reggaeton genre (or artists) have purportedly borrowed significantly from attributes of plaintiffs’ work that those attributes are now in effect commonplace elements,” Judge Birotte wrote.

First filed in 2021 against just a handful of defendants, Steely & Clevie’s lawsuit has steadily grown to cover more and more artists and songs. In the latest iteration, the duo’s lawyers name more than 150 artists, also including Pitbull, Drake, Daddy Yankee, Luis Fonsi and Justin Bieber, plus units of all three major music companies.

Steely & Clevie’s lawyers claim that over 1,800 reggaetón songs featuring iterations of the dem bow rhythm were, at root, illegally copied from “Fish Market” — and that their clients deserve monetary compensation for them. Potentially damages are difficult to calculate, but could easily reach into the billions if the case is successful.

In Wednesday’s decision, Judge Birotte also rejected other arguments from the defendants beyond the core question of whether dem bow could be protected by copyright law.

For instance, in a June filing, attorneys for Daddy Yankee and the major labels argued that the case was so massive that it had become procedurally unfair. They called it a “shotgun pleading,” filled with so many vague accusations that it was “impossible for defendants to determine what each is alleged to have done.”

But in Wednesday’s decision, Judge Birotte said he was “unconvinced” by that argument — and that Steely & Clevie’s 228-page complaint had sufficiently laid out the case to satisfy procedural requirements.

Following Wednesday’s ruling, the case will proceed toward discovery, where both sides will exchange evidence, take depositions and seek expert testimony on complex questions relating to musicology. If the judge does not decide the case after discovery, the two sides will head to trial.

Neither side in the case immediately returned requests for comment.

Bill Donahue

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