This is the latest article in the popular Blues Law series by lawyer, author, and radio personality Brian Lukasavitz, “The Blues Attorney”, that explores interesting and landmark law cases related to the blues genre.
In one of the longest legal battles in rock history, singer-songwriter and co-founder of Creedence Clearwater Revival, John Fogerty found himself defending a lawsuit that seemed like a bar-exam test question. The case would eventually make its way from the 9th Circuit Federal Courts to the U.S. Supreme Court and back again, due to the endless appeals. Possibly the most interesting part of the case, however, asks the question: Can a songwriter be sued for plagiarizing himself?
The story begins in 1959 when brothers John and Tom Fogerty along with friends Stu Cook and Doug Clifford, formed the Blue Velvets. By 1964, the San Francisco-based band was signed to the Fantasy Records label. 1967 was a year of changes for the band. It was this year, when Fantasy Records was bought by Saul Zaentz, which led to a new record deal, the development of their first full-length LP, as well as the new name — Creedence Clearwater Revival.
Under the new ownership, CCR began churning out hit after hit during the late 1960’s. With numerous hits from their albums “Creedence Clearwater Revival” (1968), “Bayou Country” (1969), “Green River” (1969) and “Down on the Corner” (1969), the band proved themselves as hit-makers and continued to bring great fortune to Fantasy Records. The lesson in this for musicians and songwriters comes from the fact that as part of the new recording contract, Fogerty and the band had signed away all ownership rights to not only the recordings, but also the underlying songs.
In 1970, for their fifth album, “Cosmo’s Factory,” John Fogerty wrote the song “Run Through the Jungle.” Even though Fogerty wrote the song, his ownership rights transferred to Fantasy Records. By 1973, John Fogerty left the band and started a solo career, eventually signing with Asylum Records and then Warner Brothers Records. Skip ahead to 1985 — Fogerty is now an established solo artist. His newest album “Centerfield” features hit songs “Centerfield,” “Rock and Roll Girls,” “The Old Man Down the Road” as well as a stab at his former label owner Zaentz, with the song “Zanz Kant Danz” (which in order to avoid a defamation lawsuit, was retitled to “Vanz Kant Danz.” Relentless to protect his intellectual property, Zaentz brought a lawsuit against Fogerty on the basis that “Old Man Down The Road” is a copyright infringement of the Fogerty-written but Fantasy-owned song “Run Through The Jungle.” So, the answer is yes, a songwriter may be sued for plagiarizing themself.
Fogerty was up for the challenge. He took the witness stand with guitar in hand. To what must have been an excited jury, Fogerty began performing both songs and demonstrated how musically the compositions were whole, separate and distinct compositions. He also demonstrated how many of the elements that were common to both songs would likely fall into the public domain, as they are common to many compositions by himself and others. The jury found for Fogerty. The battle would continue for nearly a decade, appeal after appeal, but Fogerty would remain victorious and eventually would have his legal fees awarded to him as well.
To bring the story full-circle, with a 30+ year feud between Fogerty and Zaentz…in 2004, Concord Music Group bought out Fantasy Records. At the time, Fogerty’s contract with Geffen Records had ended, so he re-signed with Fantasy Records. As part of the agreement, Fantasy assigned all ownership rights to the original catalogue and a portion of future royalties back to Fogerty. So, in the words of John Fogerty…Keep on chooglin’!!!