The Legal Beat: Mariah Carey Sued Over Christmas Song

Mariah Carey has been sued for more than twenty million dollars over her mega-hit song “All I Want for Christmas is You.” The complaint was filed in New Orleans Federal Court. 

The plaintiff is Andy Stone, a songwriter from New Orleans, who contends that he co-wrote a song also called “All I Want for Christmas is You” five years before Carey released her version of the song on her 1994 album, Merry Christmas. In addition to Carey, her co-writer and Sony Music are also being sued.

Stone has a band called Vince Vance & The Valiants and his song was released in 1989. The complaint has causes of action for copyright infringement and misappropriation. Stone claims defendants illegally exploited his “popularity and unique style” and that has caused confusion because of Carey’s later recording of her song.

Carey’s version of the song has been number one on Billboard’s top 100 chart every year since 2019. Plaintiff claims his song got “extensive airplay” during the 1993 Christmas season and was also on the Billboard charts.

The complaint states that Stone’s attorney contacted defendants in April of 2021 about their claim and was “unable to come to any agreement.”

To prevail in a copyright infringement lawsuit, a plaintiff must prove that he or she has a valid copyright, and that the level of copying constitutes misappropriation. The courts require a plaintiff to prove “substantial similarly.” 

The two songs do not seem at all similar upon listening to them and they have different lyrics (other than the title). Stone’s song is a country ballad and Carey’s is a pop song.

This lawsuit raises several interesting legal issues. In general, song titles are not protected by copyright law as they are short and do not contain sufficient originality. If the case goes to trial, expert musicologists could testify as to whether the songs are “substantially similar.” It is common in these types of cases for each side to have an expert or experts testify and they can come up with different conclusions. 

Another issue is why did Stone wait so long to file his complaint? Carey’s song is certified Diamond, sold more than 10 million copies and had over a billion streams on Spotify. It earned over sixty million dollars in royalties, according to a study by The Economist. It is the only Christmas song to achieve that level of success. Perhaps surprising to some, under current copyright law, Stone’s claim would not be barred for being filed too late as far as alleged infringements occurring within three years prior to the filing of his complaint. 

It appears to me that the plaintiff will have an uphill battle to prevail in court, since the main similarity appears to be the identical titles. In fact, there are a number of other songs with the same title in addition to Carey’s and Stone’s. Based on the limited amount of information that has been made public, and although I am not a musicologist, I doubt the plaintiff will prevail.