Updated: Mar 13
Citation: 654 F. Supp. 1129 (1987)
Court: U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California.
Bench: Samuel Conti.
Appeal- Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc.
Citation: 510 U.S. 517 (1994)
Court: Supreme Court of the United States
Bench: Chief Justice William Rehnquist;
Associate Justices: Harry Blackmun · John P. Stevens · Sandra Day O'Connor · Antonin Scalia · Anthony Kennedy · David Souter Clarence Thomas · Ruth Bader Ginsburg
In the 1960’s, a band named Creedence Clearwater Revival was formed, consisting of four members one of whom was Mr. John Fogerty. But the events of this case occur after the band had disbanded in 1972.
Fantasy Inc was a record label which owned the copy and publishing rights to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s songs from when they were together. It filed a copyright infringement suit, accusing John Fogerty of self-plagiarism and that the latter’s solo record “The old man down the road” was a blatant copy of his swamp-rock hit titled ‘Run Through the Jungle’ released by the band in 1970.
Further, the case listed Warner Bros. as the second defendant for their role as Fogerty’s new record label.
Whether John Fogerty was liable for infringing the Fantasy Inc.’s copyrights over the song titled ‘Run through the Jungle’?
A secondary issue raised was regarding the attorney and court fees after conclusion of the primary issue.
17 U.S.C. § 101- "copyright owner"- The holder of any one of the exclusive rights contained in a copyright.
17 U.S.C. § 106 - Exclusive rights in copyrighted works
17 U.S.C. § 201(d)- Transfer of Ownership.
17 U.S.C. § 501(b)- Infringement of copyright
17 U.S.C. § 505- Remedies for infringement: Costs and attorney’s fees
John Fogerty in the US district court contended that , in 1970, he had written the song “Run through the Jungle” and thus, was entitled to receive a sales percentage and other royalties for the same even after granting the exclusive copyright to Fantasy Inc. Therefore, as a beneficial owner of the copyright, Fogerty cannot infringe his own copyright as per the precedent set in Cortner v. Israel, 732 F.2d 267. Both the parties were in agreement that the defendant was a beneficial owner of the original song, but this argument was negated on the grounds that it doesn’t further the rationale behind the prohibition of infringement suits between co-authors. It was stated that as joint authors, each co-owner has "an independent right to use or license the use of the copyright." However, a beneficial owner does not have the same right, but only has economic interest in the work and therefore, they can infringe upon the legal owner’s exclusive rights.
Following this, while determining whether there was any infringement or not, the court considered the following factors:
Whether Fantasy Inc. has the ownership of the songs or not?
Whether John Fogerty had access to this work prior to his creation?
Whether there was any substantial similarity?
Fantasy Inc. easily and successfully proved the fulfilment of the first two factors with no counter arguments from the defendants. With respect to the third factor, Fantasy Inc. proved an underlying similarity between the two melodies and by claiming that the two songs were blatantly similar and anyone hearing them can state the same. The burden to prove otherwise was thus laid on John Fogerty and Warner Bros. The matter was only concluded after Fogerty brought his guitar to the court room and proceeded to play both the original song and the song in contention. Since Fogerty was the songwriter and composer of both the songs, he was considered as the expert authority to explain the technicalities of the song. He played both the songs for the judge and the jury while explaining all the differences and stated that the only similarity between the two songs is his style, i.e., swamp rock. It was argued that for an artist to have a signature style is a common occurrence and thus cannot be the basis of an infringement suit. After listening to these arguments and testimony, the court had held that while both the songs might sound similar to a less discerning listener who is not a conscious listener of Fogerty’s style, they were unequivocally distinct compositions.
The case concluded with the court ruling in the favour of Fogerty. But since this case was already second to a defamation charge brought forward by the Fantasy Inc. which had resulted in Fogerty paying millions of dollars to Saul Zaents, the owner Fantasy, Inc., Fogerty filed an additional motion for a reasonable attorney’s fee pursuant to 17 U.S.C. § 505. But it was denied by the district court on the grounds that Fantasy Inc.’s case was in good faith and not frivolous. Citing the previous defamation suit, Fogerty then filed an appeal in the Ninth Circuit, Court of Appeals where the court ruled in favour of Fantasy Inc. by stating that the matter of court fees is that of the court's discretion.
Fogerty then filed an appeal in the SCOTUS contending that the Ninth Circuit has “dual standards” as it differentiates between prevailing plaintiffs and prevailing defendants. It was argued that a victorious plaintiff is generally awarded attorney’s fees while if the defendant is successful, they still need to prove malicious intent of the plaintiff. The court held that irrespective of which party is prevailing, they are to be treated alike but the awarding of attorney’s fees remains a matter of the court's discretion. Vis-à-vis the current contention, the court concluded that the Court of Appeals was erroneous in its ruling based on ‘dual standards’. Since the criteria set by the Court of Appeals was more stringent for the defendant than it would be for a prevailing plaintiff, its ruling shall be deemed to be reversed. The then Chief Justice William Rehnquist cited the objective of the copyright law and stated that since the law is for promotion of creative expression, punishing the artist for defending themselves would only lead to stifled creativity. The case was thus remanded for further proceeding while considering the opinions of the SCOTUS.
This case in its initial stages had faced vehement protests from musicians as it challenged the right of a song-writer to use his own style throughout the course of their career. From the very inception, the parties involved were aware of the impact this judgement would have on the entire music industry.
In an interview with the Rolling stone, John Fogerty said, “What’s at stake is whether a person can continue to use his own style as he grows and goes on through life. I can feel Lennon, Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Leiber and Stoller standing behind me going, ‘Johnny, don’t blow this’.”
The positive ruling in favour of John Fogerty resulted in this case becoming a landmark judgement in the music industry. It set a precedent which discouraged multiple lawsuits backed by malafide intentions.
BBC, Nine most notorious copyright cases in music history, https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20190605-nine-most-notorious-copyright-cases-in-music-history
Fantasy, Inc. v. Fogerty, 654 F. Supp. 1129 (N.D. Cal. 1987), https://law.justia.com/cases/federal/district-courts/FSupp/664/1345/1504901/
Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc, 510 U.S. 517 (SCOTUS 1994), https://www.casemine.com/judgement/us/5914858dadd7b049344c7f9d
JARED H., John Fogerty Got Sued For Sounding Like Himself, https://ledgernote.com/blog/interesting/john-fogerty-sued-for-sounding-like-himself/