Emily Chow is an IPilogue Writer and a 2L JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School.
Mariah Carey’s 1994 tune “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is one of the most iconic songs of the holiday season. It is the first holiday single to be certified diamond, earning an estimated $60 million in royalties. With over 1.15 billion streams on Spotify alone, it would be hard to find someone unable to complete the lyrics after hearing the opening line, “I don’t want a lot for Christmas…”
After 28 years on air, it might be a surprise to see a new copyright infringement lawsuit filed against the song in Louisiana on June 3. Novelty musician Andy Stone, also known as Vince Vance and the Valiants, filed a lawsuit against Carey, her co-writer, and Sony Music for copyright infringement, alleging that Carey knowingly infringed the rights to Vance’s 1989 song of the same name. According to the lawsuit, Vance’s lawyers contacted Carey in April 2021 but were unable to come to any agreement regarding the rights and distribution of “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” Vance seeks $20 million dollars in damages for Carey’s failure to obtain permission to use Vance’s song to create a derivative work.
The US statute of limitations is 3 years from the last incidence of infringement, but due to the nature of the song’s annual return, the statute has not run. While the untimeliness is certainly odd, the lawsuit itself is even odder. The complaint does not explicitly allege that the two songs are substantially similar. Instead, paragraph 32 states that Carey’s work “was designed to exploit [Vance’s] popularity and unique style, causing confusion as to the association” between the two artists. In doing so, Carey effectively sought to “capitalize on the goodwill and unique talent of [Vance] in an effort to obtain commercial advantage.” This argument is questionable considering that in the 90s, Carey sold over 100 million albums and released 14 No. 1 singles compared to Vance’s song, which charted at No. 55 on Billboard’s Hot Country Singles and Tracks chart in 1994.
In order to prove that Carey’s song is an unlicensed derivative work, Vance will need to show that Carey’s work is a derivative work in the first place. Beyond the obvious fact that the two songs share a name, there appears to be little else supporting the vague allegations made in the lawsuit. Words and short phrases such as names, titles, and slogans are not subject to copyright. In fact, Vance’s song is one of 179 different works with the same title listed on the US Copyright Office’s Catalog. As a layperson, the two songs do not sound quite alike – one is an upbeat pop song, the other a country tune. Song lyrics do fall under the scope of copyright protection, but Christmas imagery such as stockings and mistletoe fall under the scenes à faire doctrine and cannot be protected due to the generic or universal nature of the song’s theme.
If the case does go to trial, only a jury can decide whether Carey’s song truly “resulted in confusing the public in addition to resulting in a substantial loss of income” to Vance.