A company that owns the rights to the “Space Jam” theme is suing a minor-league baseball club for using it – the latest in an increasingly active legal campaign to demand payment for a song that has been heavily used in internet memes and mashups for the past twenty years.
Watson Music Group, which bought the rights to “Space Jam” in 2019 from its original songwriters, has filed three federal lawsuits in the last three months, accusing companies of infringing its copyrights by using the song on the internet without permission. It’s also sent legal threats to an unknown number of others, arguing that unauthorized users must pay a “retroactive license” to avoid legal liability.
The latest target? The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers – a minor league affiliate of the Milwaukee Brewers that Watson sued on Monday, accusing the team of briefly using the “Space Jam” song in a 2017 Facebook video. The 35-second clip, still live as of Tuesday, features the track playing in the background as the team’s mascot dunks a basketball.
“Despite plaintiff’s efforts and willingness to address defendant’s infringing activity, defendant failed to respond and plaintiff was forced to seek judicial intervention for defendant’s infringing activity,” the lawsuit claims, before demanding as much as $150,000 in statutory copyright damages from the team.
Performed by Florida hip-hop trio Quad City DJ’s, “Space Jam” was released as a theme song for the 1996 movie of the same name – a classic live-action/animated flick featuring NBA superstar Michael Jordan and the characters from Looney Tunes squaring off in a basketball game against alien invaders. The song plays during the opening credits, blasting its mix of pumped-up raps and bass-heavy dance beats over archival footage of Jordan’s career.
The movie was a hit, but the music was a smash. A star-studded soundtrack album, also featuring R. Kelly’s chart-topping “I Believe I Can Fly,” reached No. 2 on the Billboard 200 in April 1997. And while Quad City’s theme song didn’t reach the heights the group’s earlier “C’mon N’ Ride It (The Train),” the track was also a hit in its own right, eventually hitting No. 37 on the Hot 100.
In legal filings, Watson (which also goes by Quadrasound Music) says it acquired the rights to the “Space Jam” composition in 2019 from its original songwriters: Quad City’s Jay “Ski” McGown and Nathaniel “C.C. Lemonhead” Orange, as well as Van “Thrill Da Playa” Bryant of the closely-affiliated Miami hip hop group 69 Boyz.
Since then, the group has not been shy about enforcing those rights. On a website focused exclusively on Watson’s “100%” ownership of the “Space Jam” rights, a large-print banner reads: “Did you receive a notice from us?” Below that question, the site informs visitors that “U.S. copyright law provides large financial penalties for using someone’s copyrighted work without permission.”
The site then features a frequently-asked-questions section, warning readers that any use of the theme song on social media would require payment: “If your post contains any elements of the original composition ‘Space Jam’, you will need permission (a license) from Quadrasound Music.” Another question in the FAQ asks whether removing such a post, or offering credit, would suffice to avoid litigation. “None of these actions limit your liabilities as a copyright infringer,” the site answers, before explicitly stressing that copyright damages can reach $150,000 for a single infringed work.
But, the Watson website says, it doesn’t need to come to all that: “We would rather save you the expense and worry of litigation by having you work with us to resolve this matter outside of the courts by issuing you a retroactive license.”
Depending on how aggressive they want to get, Watson/Quadrasound could have plenty of targets to send those notices demanding payment.
That’s because, in the mid-2000s, Quad City’s “Space Jam” theme enjoyed a bizarre second act as a meme. Across early internet sites like Something Awful and 4chan, users published hundreds of absurdist “slam remix” videos, combining the track with other songs and video clips, often inexplicably featuring NBA star Charles Barkley.
By the early 2010s, the trend had largely faded away – most memes do. But dozens of slam remixes still exist on YouTube, and whole websites dedicated to the art of slamming are still live in 2023. During a late-night appearance in 2021, Tony-winning playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda heaped praise on Slamilton, a full-length LP splicing “Space Jam” with his musical Hamilton: “Kudos to the genius who made that. The internet remains undefeated.”
In a 2021 Billboard story recounting the long, strange history of slam remixes, Quad City member Jay Ski seemed to love the fact that his song had been meme-ized: “I feel so honored that the community embraced us and said, ‘Hey, let’s use this.’ Think about all the records they could’ve used,” he said at the time. “For ours to take on its own direction and own little world, that’s awesome.”
Do the creators of all those remixes have licenses to use “Space Jam”? Almost certainly not. So, is every one of them going to get letters from Watson, demanding they take “retroactive licenses” or risk costly litigation? Darren Heitner, a Miami lawyer who serves as the company’s outside general counsel, said he could not answer that question and that every case would be treated individually.
“I can’t speak broadly to whether our client is seeking payment from everyone who has used the content as part of a meme, given the facts vary on a case-by-case basis and there are instances where a meme may be commercialized or be used as part of a larger commercial enterprise,” Heitner told Billboard.
Heitner would not say how many legal notices Watson/Quadrasound had sent out, nor how much money the company typically demanded in licensing fees to avoid litigation.
“Our client’s policy is to send out a notice when it, with reasonable diligence, discovers the infringement,” Heitner said. “It has recently become much more active in policing such infringement with the intent to engage in thorough discourse with the infringer before escalating each matter.”
Over the past three months, the company has begun rapidly filing lawsuits against those who refuse to pay or ignore demands. In May, Watson sued SportsGrid, a New York-based sports betting media company, over allegations that it featured “Space Jam” repeatedly in videos and podcasts without licenses. Then in June, the company sued a Florida company called CPPM Leasing LLC, claiming it had used the song in a basketball-themed Facebook video in 2019. And now this week, Watson filed its suit against the Wisconsin Timber Rattlers over its slam-dunk video.
Those cases are a far cry from suing every creator of a meme, of course. They target sophisticated business entities who chose to use a copyrighted song in commercial contexts to help promote themselves, not random individuals who mashed-up two songs for fun. But if you believe Watson’s own language, the company does not make that kind of distinction between different types of alleged infringers.
“Is an unauthorized version of the composition ‘Space Jam’ considered copyright infringement?” the company asks in its FAQ. “Yes (there are a few exceptions). Without permission from Quadrasound Music, you most likely are an infringer.”