from the oooooh-get-him dept
It takes a special kind of hubris to appropriate music and lyrics not just from another artist, but another cultural genre of artists, and then threaten someone else for “stealing” what you’ve “stolen”. Meet Barry Mann. If that name doesn’t sound terribly familiar to you, fear not, as he is known for the 1961 hit song Who Put The Bomp? and other songs from decades ago. And if that song title doesn’t sound familiar, you’ve almost certainly heard the song. To jog your memory, it includes such made up words as “ramalama ding dong”. See, those are called vocables: made up syllables used to effectuate rhythmic form rather than meaning. You can listen to the song below to get an idea of what I’m talking about.
“The Mann”, which is what I’ll be calling him from here on out, is still kicking at 82 and apparently is learning a new hobby: threatening other artists with copyright claims. He and/or his legal representatives apparently sent a cease and desist notice to Le Tigre, a feminist punk band, over a song called Decepticon. See, Decepticon takes a couple of lyrics found in The Mann’s song and repurposes them to become a feminist anthem. For that and one additional reason that we’ll get into later, Le Tigre filed suit for declaratory relief of The Mann’s copyright infringement claim. Here is Decepticon so you can go hear for yourself just how copyright-infringe-y this all isn’t.
Between the suit and the song itself, you should notice a number of things. First off, you may be thinking to yourself that this song sounds decidedly retro for punk music. That’s because the song came out twenty years ago and has long been Le Tigre’s most famous song. Why a lawsuit is only being filed now is an open question. In addition, the use of the lyrics is minimal and the song itself is nothing remotely like The Mann’s song.
Additionally, even if Defendants had a legitimate claim to ownership of the small portion of Bomp lyrics at issue, they nonetheless have no copyright infringement claim against Le Tigre or its licensees because Le Tigre’s transformative use of those lyrics in Deceptacon is an emblematic case of fair use under Section 107 of the Copyright Act, 17 U.S.C. § 107.
Transformative use? Let’s get into that. You may also have noticed that the lyrics are actually slightly different. For instance, the lyric to start the song is no longer “who put the bomp”, it’s “who took the bomp”.
Deceptacon’s reference to and inversion of the Bomp lyrics at issue delivers a stinging indictment and parody of Bomp, which is clear from a comparison of the songs’ lyrics and sharply contrasting musical styles, as critics have noted over the decades. Bomp, written from a man’s perspective, begins with the statement: “I’d like to thank the guy who wrote the song that made my baby fall in love with me.” Bomp’s singer asks, “Who put the bomp in the bomp bah bomp bah bomp?” and “Who put the ram in the rama lama ding dong?” Deceptacon, by contrast, is a feminist anthem that begins with the proposition that music “is sucking my heart out of my mind” and continues to ask, “Who took the bomp from the bomp-a-lomp-a-lomp?” and “Who took the ram from the rama-lama-ding-dong?” Thus, Le Tigre’s use of the lyrics that appear in Bomp instills those lyrics with a new meaning that is directly at odds with and a clear criticism of the message in Bomp, which is precisely the sort of fair use that Section 107 of the Copyright Act is designed to protect.
But parody and criticism of what? Well, there certainly is the feminist angle to it, yes, and Le Tigre is well known for creating that sort of stinging lyrics within its songs. But not just the feminist critique. Remember the change from “put” to “took”? Well…
The Bomp lyrics putatively at issue are mainly comprised of song titles and non-lexical vocables (nonsense syllables used in music). But Mr. Mann did not create these vocables or song titles; rather, it appears that Mr. Mann and his cowriter copied them from Black doo-wop groups active during the late 1950s and early 1960s. Specifically, it appears that Mr. Mann took “bomp-bah-bomp-bah-bomp” from The Marcels’ distinctive version of “Blue Moon,” which sold over a million copies, and “rama lama ding dong” from the Edsels’ then-popular “Rama Lama Ding Dong.” In short, the Bomp lyrics at issue are not original to Mr. Mann, and Defendants have no legitimate copyright claim in them.
And that is how this all comes full circle, in a way. The Mann threatened a punk feminist group over a song it created with lyrics designed to specifically criticize how he appropriated those lyrics from black doo-wop groups in the 60s. Like I said, that takes a nearly impressive amount of hubris.
As far as copyright cases go, this should be an easy one for the courts.