The holiday season brings with it the return of many beloved items, among them Christmas cookies, peppermint mochas, Elf on the Shelf, and Mariah Carey’s hit song “All I Want for Christmas is You.”
This year, Carey is getting a bit of coal in her stocking in the form of a copyright infringement lawsuit against her for the cherished tune, which has earned at least $60 million in royalties. A member of the group Vince Vance and the Valiants, Andy Stone, claims Carey’s song infringes upon his tune of the same name, which was released in 1989 as a country song.
To set the foundation, we must first define the area upon which we’re focused: copyright law. “Copyright is a type of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship as soon as an author fixes the work in a tangible form of expression,” according to the U.S. Copyright Office. Musicians, generally speaking, usually create two types of copyright protected works for songs:
- The actual sound recording, which is all of the actual musical notes (or spoken words) that have been captured in some sort of recording format, such as a CD, MP3, or other mechanism.
- A song’s underlying composition, the music and lyrics, is the musical work. The physical aspect of this is usually sheet music.
Stone’s Allegations and Previous Lawsuit
Stone has leveled serious allegations against Carey, including “direct copyright infringement” and “unjust enrichment.” He alleges that the “story” being told in his lyrics is very similar to Carey’s, and that the “narrator favorably contrasts their desire for their unnamed loved one” with presents and seasonal items, and both songs express the sentiment that the only thing on the narrator’s mind for Christmas is the proverbial “you.”
The court filing addresses similarities in the two songs, particularly in the lyrics, but also points out melodic similarities and touches on the astronomical success of Carey’s song, mainly for the purpose of calculating damages. The court filing also states Carey’s song is a derivative work of Stone’s original, which means the copyrighted work is “derived” from another copyrighted work. Furthermore, Stone claims the story of how Carey wrote the song is fabricated, particularly because Carey does not play an instrument with which to compose such a tune.
Interestingly enough, Stone filed suit in 2022 as well, but dismissed that suit, which was filed in Louisiana. The 2023 case, however, was filed in the Central District of California and Stone is now represented by Gerard Fox—noteworthy as the attorney who represented songwriters against Taylor Swift in a copyright case over “Shake It Off.”
A Winning Case?
Of course, it’s hard to speculate as to whether Stone will win his case, but there are some interesting tidbits to consider.
First, Andy Stone was not the first person to copyright a piece called “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” Registration number PA0000281449 is dated February 4, 1986, and is a musical work with this title. There is another copyright from 1971 with this title—all in all, there are over 200 copyright entries from various years with the same title.
Second, there is a longstanding test used to establish copyright infringement. The “substantial similarity” test is a two-prong test consisting of the following:
- The defendant had access to the plaintiff’s work, and
- The defendant’s work is substantially similar to protected aspects of the plaintiff’s work.
Recent copyright cases have applied this test and found for both plaintiffs and defendants. For example, in the famous “Blurred Lines” case, the Marvin Gaye estate sued Robin Thicke over similarities between his song “Blurred Lines” and Gaye’s song “Got to Give it Up.” The Gaye estate was awarded over $3 million in damages, as well as a percentage of future royalties, as the court found several similarities between the songs.
Mariah Carey won a previous copyright lawsuit against songwriters who said her song, “Thank God I Found You,” which was similar to their song, called, “One of Those Love Songs.” The judge in this case found the works were not similar melodically.
If the current case makes it to trial, Stone and his counsel will need to show how the songs are substantially similar. Either way, Mariah Carey is still considered the “Queen of Christmas” and her song will likely continue to be played every holiday season.
The case filing can be found here.
The Michelson Institute for Intellectual Property, an initiative of the Michelson 20MM Foundation, provides access to empowering IP education for budding inventors and entrepreneurs. Michelson 20MM was founded thanks to the generous support of renowned spinal surgeon Dr. Gary K. Michelson and Alya Michelson. To learn more, visit 20mm.org.