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November 13, 2009

Bow wow wow, yippie yo, yippie yea

An interesting copyright decision has just come out of the Sixth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, reports The Tennessean.

The phrase "bow wow wow, yippie yo, yippie yea" belongs exclusively to funk legend George Clinton, a panel of federal judges ruled this week.

Bridgeport Music, the company that administers Clinton's work, sued Universal Music Group for copyright infringement over those words in 2001. At issue: the 1998 release of "D.O.G. in Me," a song by hip-hop and R&B group Public Announcement, one of Universal's artists. In the song, Bridgeport claimed, Public Announcement wrongfully used the words "bow wow wow, yippie yo, yippie yea," as well as a repetitive use of the word "dog" in ways that infringe on Clinton's copyright.

Clinton and two other songwriters first penned the phrase in 1982 while writing "Atomic Dog," one of Clinton's best-known works.

A federal jury agreed with Bridgeport and awarded the company about $89,000 in damages. The amount was based on the sales of Public Announcement's album All Work, No Play, which included the song.

The opinion, available as a PDF here, provided a glimpse of how Clinton's creative muse works.

Songwriters David Spradley, Garry Shider, and George Clinton created “Atomic Dog” in a recording studio in January 1982, working without a written score ... Testimony at trial indicated that the song was composed spontaneously – Spradley recorded the initial tracks in the studio and recalled that “when George arrived he had been partying pretty heavily so he was, you know, feeling pretty good,” and was unsteady at the microphone. Spradley and Garry Shider “got on either side of him. We just kind of kept him in front of the microphone” while Clinton recorded the vocal tracks that same night.

The Court provides an explanation of the test used to determine if the creative work at issue was sufficiently original to warrant copyright protection, concluding that Clinton's bow-wow-wowing and panting -- well, take a look for yourself:

As noted previously, the standard for originality is a low one, and the “vast majority of works make the grade quite easily.” Feist, 499 U.S. at 345. In this case, expert testimony presented at trial was sufficient to permit the jury to conclude that Clinton’s use of the three disputed elements in “Atomic Dog” met this minimal standard.

Additionally, there was expert testimony that these elements were not just the “mere abstract idea” of a dog or of the activity of panting because, in Clinton’s composition, the word “dog” constituted a “stand-alone melody of one word” used as musical punctuation at intervals on the tonic note of the song and because the sound of panting followed the rhythm of the song. Testimony by David Spradley, a co-creator of “Atomic Dog,” also demonstrated that Clinton exercised some degree of creative control over the panting by instructing the performers to create a certain rhythm.

I can't help but notice that the judges did not seem to be country music fans, writing about the genre in a footnote:

An example of scènes à faire, or “stock” themes, in music is found in Black v. Gosdin, 740 F. Supp. 1288, 1292 (M.D. Tenn. 1990), involving a dispute over a country music song about a jilted lover set in a bar with a jukebox. The court explained that these elements in the song flow directly from a common theme in country music: “Having chosen the familiar theme of a broken hearted lover seeking solace in country music, the choice of a barroom with a jukebox as the setting in which to unfold this idea simply cannot be attributed to any unique creativity on the part of the songwriter.”

It seems if the jilted cowboy had had his horse whinnying the refrain in the footnoted country song, the songwriters would have had a better shot at prevailing. Still, at least justice has prevailed -- and gotten its groove on, too.

Posted by Mike Lief at November 13, 2009 07:39 AM


Actually, it belongs to Bridgeport Music, who owns the rights to many of Clinton's songs. Neither Clinton nor the songs other writers make a dime off this -- he's distanced himself from the suit (he has had years of litigation with Bridgeport over getting ripped off on his royalties).

Bridgeport is the copyright equivalent of a patent troll.

Posted by: Glib Grouse at November 13, 2009 07:29 PM

I am still having to put up with Bridgeport claim of they have rigths to issue "sampling right" to GRC'c copyrighted work "Ripple" (p) 1973,I Don't Know What It Is But it Sure Is Funky" sampled in "I Got It Make" (p)1989 Special Ed, Rolling with Kid N Play, Everything, Mary J Bliege, Two Worngs", Wycle, Cmurder, Bow Wow, Sweet Dreams" and other come listen at ginnmusicgroup.com or myspace/ginnmusicgroup.com. There is a reason neither party was rewarded attorney fees.

Posted by: Jimmy Ginn at November 16, 2009 08:43 AM