When an individual artist achieves a certain level of material success and fame, the Piece of the Pie Effect can occur: Smaller artists try to obtain credit and compensation for their part in the success. This is often achieved through intellectual property means.
This circumstance may be arising between Mariah Carey and Andy Stone, better known by his stage name, Vince Vance, in a recent copyright infringement case.
The Claims of Vince Vance
Stone has sued Carey over the song title “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” Vince Vance and the Valiants released a song by this title in 1989. About 5 years later, Carey put out an unrelated song with a different melody and lyrics – but the same title.
Stone believes that the success of Carey’s song partially rode on the recognition of his own “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” He asserts that people may have listened to Carey’s song believing it to be his own.
Stone claims that this listener confusion damaged and continues to damage recognition of his Christmas song. As recovery for damages, he is asking $20 million plus legal fees.
All I Want For Christmas… 28 Years Later
The strangest part about this claim: the delay. 28 years have passed since Carey’s song title allegedly infringed on Stone’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” Why did Stone wait so many years to act?
Some could argue that it took Stone that much time to see the value of the shared title. But, on the other hand, the success of Carey’s song has relied less and less on prior recognition as time has passed. Her “All I Want For Christmas Is You” has moved into being THE version that the majority of listeners recognize.
Can a Song Title Be Copyrighted?
This leads us to some other holes in Stone’s argument. The largest is that the U.S. Copyright Office does not grant exclusive copyrights to song titles.
To be clear, original music and lyrics can be copyrighted. These components show the fingerprints of creation. But song titles generally lack the distinctiveness necessary to merit a copyright. Think of how many boast generic names like “Baby” or “My Love.”
This is demonstrated by how many songs are registered with the U.S. Copyright Office with the title “All I Want For Christmas Is You” – more than 150 at this point in time.
Stone could try to build a case for the exception to this rule. Occasionally, a song title gains such recognition that it becomes its own piece of valuable IP, i.e. “Yellow Submarine.” However, the odds of this claim winning for this song are far-fetched.
When Does the Big Fish Pay the Small Fish?
Sometimes, these “piece of the pie” intellectual property claims are legitimate. A famous artist may have stepped on another’s copyrights or trademarks as they climbed their way to success– improper credits, unlicensed usage, unpaid work, etc.
In other instances, a less famous artist may see similarities between their work and more popular work, and they may seize an opportunity.
What is that opportunity, exactly? It is not winning a case in court. Rather, they may be trying to create a situation in which an out-of-court settlement is less messy for the famous defendant – and more lucrative for the obscure plaintiff.
Opinions surrounding this case seem to coalesce around the second option. Stone is likely hoping for a settlement, if the case is not dismissed first. It currently stands on thin legs.
What is the cautionary message here? If you are a working artist, it may be worth titling your work in the most distinctive way possible. Even if you are allowed to share, a more generic or commonly used title could lead to bites taken from your successful work down the road.