While on a vacation in Northern Michigan recently, Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” started playing in a local tavern. The song seemed out of place in the northern woods, but as I looked around, I could sense that the conversation at a number of tables had changed once the song began playing. It has been almost two months since Jackson’s untimely death and yet, people across the country are still moved by his death. It seems appropriate then to write a short piece before Jackson’s burial sometime aroundSeptember 3rd.
As a pop star, Jackson was no stranger to copyright infringement lawsuits. But, even with his death, Jackson will play a role in shaping copyright law. The battle for his stake in the Sony-ATV Music Publishing catalog (which includes the Beatles, Elvis and contemporary artists) along with the catalog to his own songs has been discussed extensively and will likely be a topic worth following for sometime to come.
There is also the little issue of an ongoing copyright lawsuit. The lawsuit by Cameroon sax man, Manu Dibango, against Michael Jackson and Rihanna received a flurry of attention when it was filed in February, yet except for a wonderful article in the New Yorker, it has received almost no attention since then.
Dibango struck gold with his 1972 song, “Soul Makossa“, that some credit as an early disco staple. He reaped an additional pot of gold ten years later with his lawsuit against Jackson who admitted that he borrowed the phrase: “ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa” in his song,”Wanna Be Startin’ Something” on the Thriller album from Soul Makossa. After reaching a settlement, Jackson and Dibango moved on happily ever after.
Actually, not happily ever after. Fast forward to 2007 and things get interesting again. Pop star Rihanna received Jackson’s permission to use the “Ma ma se, ma ma sa, ma ma coo sa” phrase in what became one of her many hit songs: “Don’t Stop the Music“. But, she did not receive permission from Dibango and it it does not appear that she asked him for permission. Dibango is suing for about $650,000 — those who follow the exchange rate between the CFA (Communauté Financière Africaine) and the U.S. dollar can give us daily updates.
Absent Jackson’s death, this battle of superstars with their millions of dollars would likely have been resolved quietly and quickly. But because it is unclear who will control and ultimately act on behalf of Jackson’s estate, a quiet and quick resolution does not seem to be possible. For those of us curious about intellectual property issues, keeping the case moving towards trial will be enlightening. Some unanswered questions:
- Why were Rhianna’s lawyers savvy enough to track down Jackson to get his permission, but not Dibango’s?
- What rights in the “ma ma se . . . ” phrase did Jackson get in his settlement with Dibango?
- If Jackson didn’t acquire any rights from Dibango to the phrase other than a license to use it in the “Wanna Be Startin’ Something” song, what rights did Jackson’s lawyers represent he had in the “ma ma se” phrase to even give Rihanna?
We may never find out the answers to these questions if the case does not go to trial. Perhaps the bigger shame would be that we would never see Jackson jumping out of his casket and moonwalk to the witness stand one last time to the beat of Thriller:
“That this is thriller, thriller night
‘Cause I can thrill you more than any ghost would ever dare try
Thriller, thriller night . . . “