The 1985 Chicago Bears (“‘85 Bears”) was one of the most talented and memorable football teams of all time, both for the team’s on-field domination of opposing teams and for the team members’ off-the-field antics. With personalities like “Punky QB” Jim McMahon and William “Refrigerator” Perry, the ‘85 Bears transcended the gridiron. Before the regular season even ended, members of the ‘85 Bears, calling themselves the “Chicago Bears Shufflin’ Crew,” brashly recorded and released a rap song and music video called the “Super Bowl Shuffle.” Controversial at the time – Bears defensive lineman Dan Hampton declined to participate because he thought the song was too arrogant – more than 25 years after the ‘85 Bears backed up their words (or lyrics) by easily defeating the New England Patriots 46-10 in Super Bowl XX, the song was the subject of a recent copyright infringement claim.
The idea for the Super Bowl Shuffle arose when record label owner and Bears fan Richard Meyer contacted Bears receiver “Speedy” Willie Gault about making a record with the team. The song was eventually co-written by Meyer and three others and became an instant hit, reaching number 41 on the Billboard charts and earning a Grammy nomination for best rhythm and blues vocal performance by a duo or group (though it lost to Prince’s “Kiss” in what hardly anyone would consider an upset). Meyer became the copyright owner of both the song and the video, and ownership of the copyright passed to Meyer’s wife, Julia, upon his death in 1992. As the current rights holder, Ms. Meyer has carefully protected the Shuffle, preventing YouTube from displaying the Shuffle video and even suing multiple television networks for allegedly displaying short clips of the video.
As the 20-year anniversary of the ‘85 Bears approached, Triumph Books (“Triumph”), a publisher specializing in sports books, released “The ‘85 Bears: Still Chicago’s Team“ (the “Book”). In connection with the Book, Triumph entered into a royalty agreement with Renaissance Marketing Corporation (“RMC”), Ms. Meyer’s exclusive licensing agent for rights related to the Super Bowl Shuffle. The royalty agreement granted Triumph the right to include an audio CD of the song on the inside cover of each Book for the duration of the agreement, which expired on September 30, 2008.
According to the complaint filed by Ms. Meyer and RMC in the Northern District of Illinois, Random House (which purchased Triumph in 2006) and Mitchell Rogatz, founder of Triumph and President of Random House’s Triumph Books imprint, continued to distribute the Book with the Shuffle CD after the expiration of the royalty agreement. The complaint further contends that Triumph included a picture taken from the Super Bowl Shuffle video in the Book without the permission of Ms. Meyer or RMC.
As a result, the complaint alleges that the defendant’s “willful and deliberate” acts infringed upon Ms. Meyer’s exclusive rights under the federal Copyright Act and seeks damages under 17 U.S.C. §504 as well as an order from the court that all copies of the Book be retrieved from Random House’s retailers and, together with all copies already in the possession of Random House, be destroyed, pursuant to 17 U.S.C. §503.
The plaintiffs also claim that Random House’s continued distribution of the Book after the expiration of the royalty agreement “implicitly misrepresented” that the plaintiffs approved or sponsored the use of the CD and the picture and constituted “unfair competition” and “unfair and deceptive trade practices” which “likely caused confusion and mistake by the public” in violation of both §43(a) of the Lanham Act and the Illinois Uniform Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
Regardless of the outcome, this current dispute adds to the legend and mystique of the ‘85 Bears, showing that even 25 years later there remains significant interest in the team and the Super Bowl Shuffle. For better or worse, the Shuffle helped pave the way for athletes to dabble in the world of entertainment. Next time you are watching television or listening to the radio and come across an episode of “Ochocinco: The Ultimate Catch“ or a song from “Shaq Fu: Da Return“ you can blame Speedy Willie and the rest of the Chicago Bears Shufflin’ Crew.