Property, intangible

a blog about ownership of intellectual property rights and its licensing

Copyright Infringement Masquarading as Ownership

The Tennessean, in an article entitled “‘Atomic Dog’ singer wins claim to phrase,” reports that “The phrase ‘bow wow wow, yippie yo, yippie yea’ belongs exclusively to funk legend George Clinton, a panel of federal judges ruled this week.”

Well, no. The question was whether three musical elements – the use of the word “dog” in a low voice as “musical punctuation,” rhythmic panting, and the refrain “Bow wow wow, yippie yo, yippie yea” – were original enough to be copyrighted, to which the answer was yes:

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.

There’s a big difference between owning words and finding that a particular combination of words and music has been infringed. George Clinton has no exclusive right to barking, panting, “bow wow wow, yippie yo, yippie yea-ing,” or even his particular expression of those phrases. The case only says that Public Announcement’s use of George Clinton’s work was unexcused infringement. There no “ownership” here, even in the loosest meaning of the word.

Original work here:

Accused work here:

Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. UMG Recordings, Inc., No. 07-5596 (6th Cir. Nov. 4, 2009).

© 2009 Pamela Chestek

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