Associate Attorney Wendy Diaz talks to my brother, Ken, who runs an online Christmas music station and podcast called “The Sounds of Christmas”, about a recently-filed lawsuit against Mariah Carey over her song “All I Want For Christmas Is You”.
WD: All I want for Christmas is a lawsuit.
KK: Yeah, here’s the story. In 1989, the group Vince Vance and the Valiants released a bluesy Country Christmas single called “All I Want For Christmas Is You”. It made it onto the charts a couple years later, and it became something of a standard for country radio. In fact, since then, it’s become the most-played country music Christmas song. It’s been covered by lots of artists, including LeAnn Rimes and Kelly Clarkson, who had it on her album last year.
KK: But the song by that same title that you probably know a little better is the one Mariah Carey recorded in 1994. It’s the song she co-wrote. It’s been a top 10 Hit, since 1994, every December since then. Last year, it became the first Christmas song to reach 1 billion streams on Spotify. And with its continued chart success year after year, Billboard has named it the greatest holiday song of all time. Your mileage may vary on that, but that’s what Billboard says.
KK: Mariah’s song has been covered by hundreds of artists. One of the most recent was Dolly Parton and she did a duet with Jimmy Fallon. You’ve probably heard that one.
WD: I have.
KK: But now, Andy Stone, who was, and I guess still is, Vince Vance in the first band I mentioned, has filed a copyright lawsuit against Mariah Carey. Wendy, can you kind of take us through this?
WD: Yes. So for the record, I am very familiar with Mariah Carey. I have not heard of Mr. Stone, aka Vince Vance, until this lawsuit. So a copyright suit is also known as copyright infringement where basically you’re using someone’s item, in this case, the music title without that person’s permission. Something similar happened with Ed Sheeran with his song and “Oh Why”, and he was ultimately successful with that lawsuit against another songwriter with a similar sounding song.
KK: Have you heard the Vince band song by this title?
WD: Not until the lawsuit came about I hadn’t listened to it. And I will say, other than the title, they’re completely completely different songs.
KK: Yeah, you don’t have to be a musicologist to listen to these two songs and know that they’re not remotely similar. They don’t have lyrics that are even close to the same. Music is definitely not the same. The only thing they have in common seems to be the title. Does Mr. Stone even suggest that anything was taken from his song besides the title?
WD: No. Well, maybe perhaps any potential money his song could have made on Country Music Radio, but that’s not really listed other than he is asking for, I believe $20 million. But other than the “infringement” of the copyright of the title, that’s the only thing that is being alleged. Nothing in regards to lyrics or tunes, just the title.
KK: I’m not a lawyer, obviously. But I Googled it, which is very dangerous, I know. And the copyright office says that you can’t copyright a title. Like a song title, like the title of a book or the title of a movie.
WD: There are many songs, not even just these two, there are a lot of other songs with the same title. I think Adele has a song that has a title similar to other artists’ songs, as well. So I don’t think that there is a copyright infringement in regards to titles because you can’t own a title. At least in regards to music.
KK: Yeah, Adele had a hit, I want to say a few years ago, but time goes fast, so it could have been longer, but it was simply called “Hello”. And Evanescence had a hit by that name. Oasis did. Lionel Richie did. Nobody complained. I mean, I know it’s only a one word title, but I remember in the 80s, Huey Lewis had a song from Back to the Future called “The Power Of Love”. And it was really weird because at the same time, there were two other hits that were on the charts that also were called “The Power of Love”. Completely different songs, completely different artists. Nobody sued anybody though.
WD: In looking at Adele, and Lionel Richie, it’s similar to these, even moreso, the songs are vastly years apart. These two [in this lawsuit] they have a couple of years in between. They’re completely different from one another.
KK: Now, Vince Vance, I don’t know if they still perform as a band. They haven’t released anything in almost twenty years, but I know they were doing some things. He’s a Louisiana guy, I think New Orleans. And I know they play around there every now and then. That’s where this lawsuit was filed. Mariah is in New York. Does that make any difference?
WD: It’s a Federal suit. So in regards to the Federal laws, it can. But because Vince Vance lives in Louisiana, that’s more likely the reason why he’s choosing that venue to be there. Because he resides there.
KK: Okay, like a home court.
KK: Okay. The other thing that really sticks out to me is that his song came out 1989, made it onto the charts in 1993. Mariah wrote and released her song in 1994. It’s been almost 30 years. Why this lawsuit now? Any idea?
WD: The only idea that I can think of is money. Things have gotten vastly expensive from the late 80s, early 90s. to now. The pandemic has not helped prices. And everyone’s wanting a jolly feeling with adding more than just Christmas in July. It’s Christmas all year round, to keep a positive flow, and get rid of a lot of the negative aspects of being isolated and quarantined throughout the pandemic, especially if someone’s high risk. But I really just think it’s just the revival of her popularity more than just during December. And she’s making money off of it, you know. And people got to eat; people got to pay bills. And on a personal level, that’s what I think is, you know, he just, he wants his money.
KK: I guess I sort of get it. I know people in the music business, and it’s hard to get a song on the radio. And he was just about there in 1993. And then, this juggernaut of Mariah Carey, and “All I Want For Christmas Is You”, her song exploded. And his was still popular, but nothing, nothing even close. And I’m sure that that was frustrating. But I just don’t see that it was illegal.
WD: I don’t see any illegality. I think that country music is a niche genre. There’s country stations all over the place. There’s country people everywhere. I like country music myself. It’s not primarily what I listen to, though. And Mariah Carey is more pop culture, more mainstream, moreso back then than she is now. And just by the nature of who her target audience is and who she caters to is just a is just a more broad in a generic objective way. It’s a bigger audience than a niche of country music. So that probably also helped getting it out there and having the popularity increase throughout the last three decades.
KK: I saw that with this lawsuit, and I don’t know if this is included in it or was an additional thing. But Mr. Stone claims that Mariah is guilty of violating the Lanham Act. What is that?
WD: It’s basically a trademark act from 1947. There are four elements, plus the injury aspect of it. So, in order for Vince Vance to prove that she did violate the Lahnam act, NUmber One it’s a violation or a misleading fact. More than likely he’s gonna say it’s the title of the song. And it was used in a commercial way, for commercial advertising or promotions, which is her job being a singer. It deceives in a material way. How is the song title “All I Want For Christmas Is You” deceitful? I don’t really know how he’s gonna overcome that. There has to be an element of interstate commerce. It’s a worldwide song. All of those things have to cause some sort of competitive or commercial injury. I don’t know, obviously, he didn’t get paid because his song wasn’t as popular as he would have liked it to be. I don’t think he is going to meet the threshold that she violated the Lanham Act.
WD: I think if he would have made this argument, maybe 1995, probably even 98 or as soon as the song took off. I don’t think the country music airwaves completely took off his song and put on hers. I have never heard her song on Country Music Radio, even during Christmas time when Sirius XM is all Christmas. I’ve never heard her song there. So in regards to deceiving in a material way or using it to attract other people? I think that’s a big stretch.
KK: Yeah. And if this really is just about the title, It’s hypocrisy for him to do this because there’s a rock band named Foghat that released a Christmas single in 1981. And it was an original thing that they wrote. And guess what it was called?
WD: “All I Want For Christmas Is You:?
KK: Yes. And not only that, but almost 20 years before that, there was an R&B singer (I say was, but she’s still around) Carla Thomas, who had a Christmas song that was written for her by the guy who wrote “Oh, Pretty Woman”. And it was called, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” And that was 1963. So I’m just waiting for these two to go after him for twenty million.
WD: You being more of a music buff than I am.,I know you’re familiar with the issue with Taylor Swift and Big Machine Records and her masters of what she recorded on a lot of her popular songs. Because of that contract, those songs belong to, or those recordings rather, belong to Big Machine. They don’t belong to Taylor Swift. So she had to go and independently re-record and redo all of those things, so she can retake ownership. I think the only thing Mr. Vance can do is just try to promote his song again. Who knows? Maybe that’s why he even filed the lawsuit.
WD: Because it’s probably, what, maybe less than $1,000 to file a lawsuit in Federal Court in Louisiana. Don’t hold me to that. But it has to be less than that. We’re talking about it on a podcast. It’s on the news. So maybe it was just a way for him to get some some people to listen to his music to make some money. And then he’ll just drop the lawsuit at the end. You never know. But him wanting twenty million? I don’t think it’s gonna happen.
KK: Yeah. And twenty million? Where did that number come from? Did he just sort of, or did his lawyers, just sort of think this is a good big round number? Do they think that Mariah just has that in the couch cushions? She’s gonna pull it out and give it to him.
WD: I think it’s a very even number. It’s a number that people can understand, if this does go to a jury, and it could be a number that she can afford, if Mr. Vance wins. Now granted, if this does go forward, and he loses, he could be on the hook for her attorneys fees, which I would anticipate would be very expensive.
KK: And she’s just part of this lawsuit. He’s also named Sony. And I’m sure that, not to take anything away from Mariah, but I’m sure Sony has a pretty good team of lawyers on standby.
WD: Yes, I’m pretty sure. Sony has very good in-house counsel. And he tried to reach out to them last year, and they didn’t respond. And no response is a response. So this was the next step for him. But I think at the end of the day, it’s just that, you know, he has bills to pay. And I think this is what he’s trying to do to get those bills paid.
KK: I just, I don’t know, I don’t see that this is going to do anything for him. Maybe get his song, maybe get a few more people to know about it. But we’re talking about it in June. There’s not a whole lot of people who are listening to Christmas music right now. And the public’s memory is short. So unless this somehow stays in the news for six months, it’s not going to help him when December rolls around.
WD: I agree. I think that, depending on the window of time in Federal Court, usually it’s twenty or thirty days, I expect that either a motion to dismiss is going to be filed, or a motion for summary judgment would be filed by the defendant, which would be Mariah Carey and Sony. Because if I practiced in that area, that would be the first place I would go to just nip it in the bud. So I think that’s what her lawyers are going to do, before it even makes it to a courtroom.
KK I haven’t seen any sort of response from Sony or from Mariah in public. And that’s not a surprise. I haven’t even seen anything from Vince Vance. Although he, or Mr. Andy Stone, doesn’t have certainly the kind of social media machine or following that that Mariah does. How does something like this – a lawsuit filed in Louisiana against a celebrity in New York- how does suddenly everybody know about this?
WD: Mariah Carey’s famous.
KK: Yeah, well, she is famous but–
WD: But in regards to getting out there, generally the media has boots on the ground for people to check the filings of the day, because filing court documents is public record. You might have to request the documents from the clerk or from the agency in charge of keeping the record and the court file up to date. I know in my community, there’s a department that that’s their job. They check the cases that were opened within the last 24 to 48 hours and see what they’re about. So it could very well be that that’s how the information got out. Or he called the news and said, “I’m suing Mariah Carey.” But I don’t think a clerk leaked anything, I don’t think anyone that works at the courthouse or in the system, behind the scenes. I don’t think they leaked it, I think it’s just one of the boots on the ground, from a media person doing his or her job.
KK: So basically, it could be as simple as paparazzi snapping a picture of somebody coming out of a restaurant
WD: Yes, the same sort of thing. If you’re in a public place, you happen to be there, and there’s a camera there. I can take the picture and sell it. They can’t sell the lawsuit, but they can sell the story of the lawsuit.
KK: Any predictions on this? Do you think Mariah just pulls out a million bucks and says, I’ll give you this if you go away?
WD: No, if a motion to dismiss or summary judgment is able to get this out the door, nipped in the bud, with the least amount of time and hassle on my client, that would be the way I would go. Because just from the basic information that I have on this case, and what he filed and what he’s after, I don’t think he’s going to meet the threshold.
KK: And I had mentioned the rock band Foghat. I have a friend actually, who’s one of the members of that band, not one of the original members, but one of the members of that band. And I’m absolutely sure if he [Vince Vance] makes a nickel from this, I feel like I gotta tell my friend to go get that nickel from him because you guys had done the song title first.
WD: It opens the door to something dangerous and the precedent is really on Mariah Carey’s side. And I think, well before Christmas, we’ll be hearing about this again, and that it’s over.
KK I can’t imagine that this is gonna go much farther. I would just add that Mr. Stone should be very careful, because about twenty years ago, Joel Whitburn from Billboard Magazine published an article about Vince Vance’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” and how close the melody is to a song from the early 60s by Bobby Vinton called “My Heart Belongs Only To You”. And I have listened to that, and I invite anybody to go find it on YouTube. And listen to “My Heart Belongs To Only You” by Bobby Vinton, and then listen to “All I Want For Christmas Is You” by Vince Vance and the Valliants. And you’ll notice that the melodies are almost identical. And lawyers should standby. That’s next.
WD: And I wouldn’t be surprised if Sony and Mariah Carey have investigators on the ground to do some sort of financial investigation on Andy Stone, because it’s very strange that this is happening now. And that’s also another question that no one can answer. Why now? Not in 1997, even 2000 where by then it was a significant Christmas song every year. That’s going to be the big question.
KK: I see some people trying to paint this as a David and Goliath scenario where the little guy is going to score and take down Mariah Carey and Sony and I just don’t see anything there for that to happen.
WD: Well, even with Lady Annabellum, are you familiar with Lady Antebellum?
WD: Well, there was a lawsuit against them for changing their name from Lady Antebellum to Lady A because there was another artist already called Lady A. They ended up settling out of court. I do not think that’s going to happen in this case. I do think that it’s going to be litigated in court. I do not think it’s going to make it to a jury. I do not think it’s going to make it to a bench trial. I think it will be resolved with a judge’s order saying there’s not enough here.