A cowboy-singer-poet from a town called Dusty is accusing Internet giant Yahoo Inc. in a lawsuit of rustling his signature vocalization in thousands of commercials.
Wylie Gustafson, who was paid $590 to record the “ya-hooo” six years ago, says the Sunnyvale, Calif.-based global network owes him $5 million for poaching his yodel.
“All I know is I created this yodel and it’s become an audio trademark for this company, and that wasn’t the original agreement,” Gustafson, 40, said Thursday in a telephone interview from his ranch in eastern Washington, near the town of Dusty, population 12.
“They totally ignored the fact that it is a creation and it’s a copyrighted thing,” he said. “They just ran with it....Getting taken advantage of is part of the business. But this is way beyond the scope of what I consider fair.”
A spokeswoman for Yahoo declined to comment.
Although the copyright issues appear to be garden variety, Gustafson’s attempt to collect on a yodel may be a first, lawyers said.
“I’ve never heard of that one before,” said Jay L. Cooper, a Los Angeles entertainment lawyer who represents actor Jerry Seinfeld and singer Sheryl Crow. “Usually copyright infringement is on scripts or songs or literary properties of one sort or other.”
But, said New York lawyer Peter Toren, “there is no reason you could not copyright a yodel.”
The bigger question, lawyers said, is whether a yodel is worth $5 million.
“The $5 million is just an estimate,” said Larry C. Russ, Gustafson’s Los Angeles lawyer. The commercials “have aired thousands of times, and there is a value to that.”
The work of Gustafson, one of a handful of professional yodelers in the U.S., was big with advertisers in the 1990s. His yodels were featured in commercials for Porsche, Honda, Taco Bell, Miller Light and Sprint, all of which paid actors union rates for the performance and residuals for each airing, he said.
When Gustafson was asked to yodel for an Internet start-up in 1996, he said, he agreed to do it for $590, less than the union rate.
“They were still a small, starving company,” he said. “They didn’t have a lot of money for their commercials, and I understood.”
The commercial aired, Gustafson said, and he thought that was the end of it. But three years later, Gustafson heard his yodel on a new Yahoo commercial that aired during the Super Bowl.
He said he complained to the production company that he had not given his permission for the yodel to be used in subsequent commercials, and he got another $590 check.
Gustafson describes his life on his Web site as “ropin’, wranglin’, writin’ and recordin’.” He says he would have been happy to leave out litigatin’, but he kept hearing his yodel. He filed suit this week after Yahoo failed to answer letters.