Somebody wants to copyright a rhythm – get ready for the dembow tax if they succeed

One of the most pernicious effects of today’s copyright maximalism is the idea that every element of a creative work has to be owned by someone, and protected against “unauthorised” – that is, unpaid – use by other artists. That goes against several thousand years of human creativity, which only exists thanks to successive generations of artists using and building on our cultural heritage. The ownership model of art is essentially selfish: it seeks to maximise the financial gains of one creator, at the expense of the entire culture of which they are part. A good example of this clash of interests can be seen in yet another lawsuit in the music industry. This time, somebody is trying to copyright a rhythm:

The [Fish Market song] track featured the first known example of what would come to be known as a “dembow” rhythm – the percussive, slightly syncopated four-to-the-floor beat that travelled from reggae to become the signature beat of reggaeton, today the world-conquering sound of Latin American pop.

Now, more than 30 years after Fish Market was released, Steely & Clevie Productions is suing three of reggaeton’s most celebrated hitmakers – El Chombo, Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee – for what they characterise as unlawful interpolation of Fish Market’s rhythm (or “riddim”), and are seeking the credit – and royalties – they say they deserved from the start.

As the article in the Guardian goes on to explain, the culture that has grown up around the dembow rhythm and its many offshoots is large and flourishing. The lawsuit itself cites no less than 56 songs, and on popular sites like YouTube there many dembow and reggaeton mixes and collections that testify to the vitality and range of the music that has emerged over the last few decades. To claim “ownership” of the very simple rhythmic patterns that are used is as absurd as claiming ownership of the waltz or tango.

If successful, the court case will have a devastating effect on dembo and raggaeton culture, since many of today’s and tomorrow’s artists will doubtless prefer to move on to other styles rather than pay a dembo tax to use something as basic as a rhythm. A couple of musicians may win a few extra dollars, but there will be millions of losers in the form of fans of this music, who will have less of the style they love available to them. Culture itself will also be the poorer. But contrary to its frequent claims, the copyright industry never cared about either, and will be happy to see the courts spread the ownership obsession more widely.

Featured image created with Stable Diffusion.

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