Style or Substance? Lawsuits Threaten Latin Music

Aug 24, 2023 | Law Student Blog,

Style or Substance? Lawsuits Threaten Latin Music

By Gabriella Cepeda, Saint Louis University School of Law, Juris Doctor Candidate, 2025

In recent news, lawsuits alleging copyright infringement have been filed against several prominent artists in the Latin music industry, including Daddy Yankee, Luis Fonsi, and El Chombo. In their reggaeton songs, these musicians are accused of using parts of old reggae songs without permission, claim the lawsuits. Such legal efforts, however, may not consider the fact that reggaeton is a combination of reggae and Latin music and that certain song elements may not be protectable. These lawsuits could create risky precedent for the entire music business by endangering the creative process and seeking to suppress innovation.

Reggaeton’s Origin and Influences
The late 1990s saw the emergence of the popular music genre known as reggaeton, which has Puerto Rican roots. It evolved from the blending of hip-hop elements, Latin American music genres including salsa and merengue, and Jamaican dancehall beats. The word “reggaeton” itself combines the words “reggae,” which references the Jamaican influence, and “ton,” which is derived from the Spanish word “reggaetón,” which means “big rag” and refers to the music’s dancehall origins.

Reggaeton at first encountered resistance and controversy because of its explicit lyrics and dancehall-influenced sounds. However, it eventually became well-liked among young people, particularly in cities, and it played a vital role in the development of Latin American music culture. Reggaeton’s worldwide popularity began to soar in the early 2000s when musicians like Daddy Yankee, Don Omar, and Wisin y Yandel enjoyed success abroad with singles like “Gasolina” and “Dile.” Because of its enormous popularity, reggaeton has been popularized by well-known musicians, expanding its audience even further. With singers like Bad Bunny, J Balvin, and Ozuna continuing to push its boundaries and create its future, the genre has evolved throughout time, adding elements from pop, electronic music, and other Latin genres, confirming its status as a dominant force in the global music landscape.

Creating New Genres: A Natural Evolution
Music has changed throughout history with the blending of diverse genres and influences. The blending of many musical traditions led to the emergence of genres like jazz, rock, hip-hop, and reggae itself. As musicians experiment with new sounds, take inspiration from many genres, and incorporate elements of their cultural identities into their music, this growth happens naturally.

Reggaeton’s success lies in its ability to blend the sensibilities of Latin music with the infectious rhythms of reggae. The use of standard reggae beats, de minimis samples, or influences in reggaeton tracks should not be considered copyright infringement, as this borrowing forms an essential part of the genre’s identity. It is the transformative nature of reggaeton that has propelled its global popularity, and attempting to restrict its creative process through unfounded lawsuits would be detrimental to the entire music industry.

The Importance of Sampling and Inspiration
Sampling has long been a recognized practice in the music industry, allowing artists to pay homage to their influences and build upon established sounds. From hip-hop to electronic music, artists have frequently incorporated samples from other songs to create something fresh and unique. This process can breathe new life into existing compositions and celebrates the spirit of creativity. While unauthorized sampling of recordings can constitute copyright infringement, if the sample is so brief or not even detectable to an ordinary listener, a fair use argument can be made that it is so de minimis that no permission is required.

Furthermore, inspiration is a crucial aspect of artistic expression. Musicians draw inspiration from various sources, be they the works of their predecessors, cultural heritage, or the world around them. To penalize artists for embracing their influences is to stifle creativity itself. Artists, including Daddy Yankee, Luis Fonsi, and El Chombo, have skillfully blended elements of reggae with Latin music to create a new genre that resonates with millions of listeners worldwide.

The Risk of Setting a Dangerous Precedent
If the lawsuits against Daddy Yankee, Luis Fonsi, El Chombo, and others were to succeed based more on style similarities than solid legal principles, it could establish a concerning precedent that restricts the creation of new genres. The very essence of music lies in its ability to evolve, adapt, and explore new horizons. By constraining artists to rigid boundaries, we run the risk of stifling innovation and artistic growth.

It is essential to recognize that the reggaeton genre’s success is attributable, in part, to its ability to merge elements from various musical traditions. Placing limitations on this creative process would not only be detrimental to the artists but also to the music industry as a whole. Artists should have the freedom to push boundaries, experiment with different sounds, and build upon existing influences without fear of legal repercussions.

Protecting Creativity and Encouraging Collaboration
Rather than resorting to litigation, it would be more productive to foster an environment that encourages collaboration and creative exchange. Copyright laws should strike a balance between protecting rights and allowing the free flow of ideas. This can be achieved through fair use protections, licensing agreements, and acknowledging the transformative nature of artistic expression.

Music thrives when artists are allowed to push boundaries, blend genres, and create new sounds. The reggaeton genre itself emerged as a testament to the power of innovation and cultural fusion. Instead of stifling creativity, we should celebrate the artists’ ability to create a vibrant genre that has captivated audiences around the world.

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