Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas is You” is an iconic song played during the holiday season for almost 30 years. Streamed at least 1 billion times on Spotify, topped Billboard Hot 100, received $60 million in royalties as of 2016, and is certified as “Diamond” by the Record Industry Association of America (RIAA) for more than 10 million copies sold.
It may be a “Bah Humbug” Christmas
On Friday, June 3, 2022, Andy Stone (songwriter and New Orleans-born musician who performs with Vance and the Valiants) filed a lawsuit against Carey, her co-writer, Walter Afanasieff, and Sony Music Entertainment in the Eastern District of Louisiana. Stone is seeking at least $20 million in damages for alleged copyright infringement, unjust enrichment and misappropriation, and violations under the Lanham Act for the unauthorized use of “All I Want for Christmas is You.”
Stone co-wrote and released his song, also entitled “All I Want for Christmas is You,” five years before Carey’s holiday hit in 1994. According to the Complaint, Stone recorded and released his song in 1989 but received “extensive airplay” during the holiday season in 1993 and “began making appearances on the Billboard Music Charts.”
However, Stone alleges that Carey “never sought or obtained permission” to use, reproduce, record, distribute, sell, or publicly perform the song with the same title. Stone also alleges that he never gave permission, consent, or a license to use the song title – thereby committing copyright infringement.
According to the Complaint, Stone generally alleges that “All I Want for Christmas is You” is “copyrightable subject matter in the laws of the United States.” But Stone is not alleging that Stone’s and Carey’s songs are musically or lyrically similar. In fact, the songs vastly differ in those respects. Stone’s song is a slower, guitar-led country ballad, while Carey’s song is an up-tempo pop track. However, Stone’s Complaint seems to seek copyright protection for the song title – “All I Want for Christmas is You.” But is a song title copyrightable? Before answering that question, here is a quick primer on copyright protection in recorded songs.
What is Copyright?
Copyright is a form of intellectual property that protects original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Works of authorship include literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, such as poetry, novels, movies, computer software, architecture, and—relevant to the Mariah Carey Lawsuit—songs.
What Components of a Song are Copyrightable?
Music is unique in that a recorded song involves several works independently protected by copyright. These works include (1) the musical composition (such as the underlying music and lyrics) and (2) the sound recording (i.e., the master recording). One may infringe on either of these copyrights or both simultaneously.
But are Song Titles Subject to Copyright Protection?
In short answer, no.
Many courts have long held that song titles cannot be copyrighted.
Notably, in 2011, Kanye West and others were sued in federal court for copyright infringement based on West’s hit song entitled “Stronger.” While the court analyzed other components of the song for infringement, the court held, “Although the title of a copyrighted work should be taken into account if the same title is applied to a work copied from it, titles by themselves are not subject to copyright protection.” Thus, the court dismissed the lawsuit for failure to state a claim upon which relief can be granted under Fed. R. Civ. P. 12(b)(6).
Stone will need to prove more than just the unauthorized use of the song title to support his copyright infringement claim. But given that the Mariah Carey Lawsuit is in its infancy, it will be interesting to see how the litigation develops in the coming months.
Griffith Barbee PLLC
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Handling cases with precision and professionalism gives our attorneys a unique vantage point. Copyright is a form of protection circumscribed in the United States Constitution and granted by law for original works of authorship fixed in a tangible medium of expression. Contact us today to protect your work.