“Tiger King” Joseph Maldonado sued a man hired to write songs and create recordings that Maldonado presented as his own work.
Composer Vince Johnson violated the nondisclosure agreement of his contract with Maldonado — in which Johnson waived his copyright — in order to win a recording contract on Maldonado’s fame, the lawsuit alleges.
The lawsuit also names as a defendant record label BMG, which contracted with Johnson under an agreement that encompasses the use of the contracted works and entities using Maldonado’s “Tiger King” brand name.
Songs such as I saw a tiger and Here Kitty Kitty featured prominently in the hit Netflix 2020 series Tiger King: Murder, Mayhem and Madness. Throughout the documentary, Maldonado performs the songs while singing along to recordings, on stage with a microphone, or while driving his vehicle. Music videos for the songs are also featured in the documentary.
The popularity of the documentary has prompted some fans of the show to post their own videos on social media, covering I saw a tiger and other works. Several fans on social media also noted that the voice singing the songs was very different from Maldonado’s speaking voice.
Maldonado owned and operated the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park – also known as GW Zoo – from 1998 to 2018. The flamboyant entrepreneur promoted the park with a variety of merchandise, from T-shirts and blankets to condoms, bearing the likeness of Maldonado and Mark “Tiger King”.
The gift shop featured several “Tiger King” CDs, featuring original songs with Maldonado credited as the artist. The songs had been created by Johnson and his now deceased creative partner, Danny Clinton, under contract to Maldonado.
“In or around 2013, Maldonado and Johnson entered into a confidential agreement in which Johnson would make music compilations and/or songs for Maldonado’s personal use,” according to the court filing. “The manufacturing process was designed to provide Maldonado with exclusive intellectual property rights and, among other things, to allow Maldonado to copyright the master recordings in its own name.”
On March 23, 2020, while the tiger king the documentary is gaining popularity, vanity lounge published an article titled “Tiger King: Inside Joe Exotic’s wild homemade music videos”. The article claims to have found “the men who actually sang songs like I saw a tiger and Here Kitty Kitty.”
The article quotes Johnson as saying he “had no idea (Maldonado) was going to Milli Vanilli the songs”, referring to the 1980s band exposed for lip-synching in performance songs recorded by other artists.
“I was on YouTube one night and just looked up Joe Exotic,” Johnson quoted in the post. “And there he was, lip-syncing and acting like the ghost of Elvis (in those music videos). I called him, I was hot. …And he bamboozled me about his reality show – that she was coming soon and he would fix everything like the rain. Just wanted the proper credit.
In the article and several other news articles that followed, Johnson breached the confidentiality agreement of his contract with Maldonado by claiming authorship of the works, the lawsuit alleges. In one post, Johnson is quoted as saying he hoped “Netflix’s hit docuseries would lead to a record deal.”
Maldonado’s exclusive right to the master copyright recordings was explicitly outlined in the agreement, the lawsuit alleges. The agreement provided that Johnson would “relinquish all copyright, publishing rights, and all other related rights to the music and/or songs”, and all rights to the songs would belong to Maldonado “in perpetuity in all jurisdictions and across all processes”.
Johnson and Clinton were originally hired to create a theme song for a GW Zoo reality show, and the relationship grew from there, according to the court filing.
Johnson has entered into an exclusive licensing and distribution agreement with BMG Rights Management and CREATE Music Group. Entities named in the deal include Tiger King Publishing and record label Rip Roaring Records — names that erroneously refer to Maldonado’s Tiger King brand, according to the lawsuit.
Songs from five compilations created under contract for Maldonado are now available to stream on at least eight major platforms, the lawsuit notes. The songs have been downloaded and viewed more than 10 million times, the lawsuit claims.
Maldonado claims the record companies failed to identify the rightful owners of the musical works, which years ago were released and copyrighted by Maldonado as “Tiger King Records”.
The lawsuit seeks at least $750,000 in damages against the defendants, plus costs and attorneys’ fees, and an injunction restraining the entities from continuing to publish the works.
Maldonado is serving a 22-year prison sentence, convicted of conspiring to murder Carole Baskin of Big Cat Rescue and various violations of federal law regarding the care and treatment of exotic animals. Maldonado was transferred to Federal Medical Center, Butner in North Carolina in November 2021.