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Country songwriter’s complaint alleges copyright infringement against Mariah Carey. “All I Want for Christmas” is sue?


Entertainment law case updates

Stone v. Carey
USDC ED LA June 3, 2022

This DeepFocus Law case update is about music, not film or television, but the case raises a copyright law issue too important not to discuss. A civil action by Andy Stone a.k.a. Vince Vance alleging copyright infringement against the popular singer and her co-writer on their modern holiday radio staple, “All I Want for Christmas is You” was filed on June 3, 2022, in the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Louisiana. Named defendants include Sony Music Entertainment and Sony Corporation of America. The action seeks $20 million in compensatory damages for alleged violations of copyright based on a 1989 Vince Vance & the Valiants song with the same title.

Lyrics in both songs reflect the signers’ preferences for the presence of someone they love at Christmas rather than the usual presents, holiday decorations, and other commercial aspects of the season. Beyond this rather venerable theme, the two songs seem both lyrically and musically entirely distinct. The copyright infringement claim would thus appear difficult to prove, at least at this very early stage of the litigation process.

Reaction to media reports about the lawsuit, though, seem to reflect another common theme that makes the complaint a good opportunity to inform creators about statutes of limitation in copyright infringement claims. Ms. Carey’s widely played song was released in 1994. Can you really wait 28 years before suing? Is it necessary to keep potential evidence relating to litigation that may never be filed basically forever on the outside chance that somebody will come forward, however unlikely it may seem? How long must pass before the risk of a copyright lawsuit related to your creative work also passes?

Copyright law and time limits on damages

The answers are some form of “it depends”, which is usually the case in law and always an important reason for creators to consult an experienced entertainment lawyer rather than try to figure it out on their own. At least where copyright ownership is not disputed, however “a three-year look-back limitations period for all civil claims arising under the Copyright Act“ applies. Petrella v. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, Inc., 572 U.S. 663 (2014). The applicable statute is 17 U.S.C. § 507(b)(“No civil action shall be maintained under the provisions of th[e Copyright Act] unless it is commenced within three years after the claim accrued.”

One reason for confusion is that “when the claim accrued” is not always clear. Most US circuits follow the “discovery” rule, which dates accrual of a copyright infringement claim to when the copyright owner knows or should know of the alleged infringement. But a few follow the “injury” rule, which dates accrual to the date of the actual infringement (such as the unauthorized reproduction or distribution of a copyright-protected work). Fixing this date is extremely important to the likely success of the claim. But under either rule, as Justice Ginsburg explained in Petrella, “when a defendant commits successive violations, the statute of limitations runs separately from each violation . . . . In short, each infringing act starts a new limitations period.”

The plaintiff claiming copyright infringement, however, cannot recover for infringement that allegedly occurred in the three-year period before the date on which a lawsuit is filed. Thus, even if damages for alleged infringement arising out of Ms. Carey’s song are all that Mr. Stone wants for Christmas, they would appear to be limited to those arising after 2019. For a massive hit like this, the claim could make sense economically even if only to generate online plays of the Vance song. But Santa’s sleigh will likely face considerable headwinds before the jolly elf delivers an award for the plaintiff in this case.

The takeaway for creators? If you believe copyright in your work has been infringed, do not delay enforcing your rights. And if you are accused of infringing someone else’s work, do not delay consulting with an experienced copyright attorney to evaluate the claims and respond appropriately. If the allegedly infringing work is published online, consider taking it down pending investigation and evaluation.

Read the complaint here.

DeepFocus will continue to monitor developments in this case and provide additional copyright law background of interest to independent creators. Questions about the copyright statute of limitations or other copyright law issues? Contact DeepFocus Law at (503) 975-8298 or schedule an entertainment attorney consultation.

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