Contributing author: Heather Antoine
I still remember the first time I heard Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.” I–along with the rest of the world–was instantly hooked. (I was obsessed, really. I played the song so much one year that my brother hid the CD.) It still regularly plays in my house each December.
“All I Want for Christmas Is You” was and continues to be a phenomenon, topping the charts in twenty-six countries and even topping the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 in 2019, 25 years after its original release. The song had estimated sales of over 16 million copies worldwide, making it the best-selling holiday song by a female artist. According to an article in The Economist, it earned over $60 million in royalties between 1994 and 2017. Not bad for a song that famously took 15 minutes to write.
On Friday, musician Andy Stone, AKA Vince Vance, filed a complaint against Mariah Carey, her co-writer, Walter Afanasieff, and Sony Music Entertainment, alleging claims of copyright infringement, unjust enrichment and misappropriation, and violations of the Lanham Act. The complaint alleges that Stone wrote and published the song first and that Carey’s version is simply a copy or derivative of that original song.
Stone’s version of “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” was, in fact, successful prior to the release of Carey’s version. It even climbed to No. 55 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles and Tracks chart in 1994. For anyone interested in comparing, here are links to Vince Vance & The Valiant’s video and lyrics. And, because I can never get enough, here are links to Mariah Carey’s video and lyrics. Stone is seeking at least $20 million in damages.
According to the lawsuit, Stone is the “co-owner and proprietor of the rights, title and interest in and to the copyright,” and Carey and her co-defendants “never sought or obtained permission to use ‘All I Want For Christmas Is You’ in creating, reproducing, recording, distributing, selling or publicly performing said song.” The lawsuit also mentions that Stone’s lawyers initially contacted Carey and her co-defendants about the alleged infringement in April 2021, and subsequently sent a cease and desist letter, but explains that Carey “continues to exploit” Stone’s work.
So, let’s dig in. What are the similarities?
- Title: The titles of the songs are identical. But, U.S. copyright law is clear on this point: song titles are generally not subject to copyright protection. The Copyright Office has also published a Circular on this topic titled, “Works Not Protected by Copyright.” It includes a discussion on some commonly confused works such as: ideas, methods, and systems; and names, titles, and short phrases. Keep in mind, just because something is not protected by copyright, doesn’t mean it cannot be protected by some other form of intellectual property. (For example, a patent may protect a method, and a trademark may protect a name.)
- Lyrics: Song lyrics are protected by copyright, and that protection starts the moment the lyrics are written or recorded. There are definitely some lyrical similarities between the two songs, and an actionable claim would exist if there is a “substantial similarity” between the two songs. This is where I find the only potential place for liability. However, as the often-cited treatise, Nimmer on Copyright provides, “[t]he determination of the extent of similarity that will constitute a substantial, and hence infringing, similarity presents one of the most difficult questions in copyright law, and one that is the least susceptible of helpful generalizations.” 4-13 § 13.03 (2009). This is not by chance, and it is also what makes intellectual property law the most fun you can have as a lawyer.
- Musical composition: Unlike my recent piece on Dua Lipa’s back-to-back lawsuits, this case will likely not deal much (if at all) with musical composition–but I will leave that to musicians to decide. You can read more about “substantial similarity” in the musical context in that piece.
In the Compliant, Stone also brought an interesting claim under the Lanham Act for false endorsement. Essentially, the argument being made here is that Stone suffered financial loss because people were confused about which artist’s song/related goods they were purchasing and purchased Carey’s version instead of his because of that confusion.
Of course, the question we are all wondering is why Stone waited over 25 years to bring this claim. Maybe after all this time, Stone realized he needed a little someone more “underneath the Christmas tree.”
Legal Entertainment has reached out to representation for comment, and will update this story as necessary.
Heather Antoine is a Partner and Chair of Stubbs Alderton & Markiles LLP’s Trademark & Brand Protection and Privacy & Data Security practices, where she protects her client’s intellectual property – including brand selection, management, and protection. Heather also helps businesses design and implement policies and practices that are compliant with domestic and international privacy laws.