June 6, 2022 Musicology No Comments

Go big or go home, I guess? Songwriter and performer Andy Stone is suing Mariah Carey and a co-writer for $20 Million because he might actually believe “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is an infringement of his own song by the same title released a few years prior.

I know, nobody wants to talk about Christmas music in June. We’ll be brief. This is not even close. You likely knew that already.

One question you might be asking though is, “How can Mariah Carey be sued thirty years after putting out this song?” And the answer is, “kinda like when Led Zeppelin got sued for Stairway To Heaven a few years ago.” Yes, there is a statute of limitations of three years, which means that once you know of a possible infringement, you have three years to file your claim. BUT… if the infringement is ongoing, your three-year clock is forever resetting to the latest infringement. So yes, Carey can still be sued, but the plaintiff is only suing her for the past three years of the imagined infringement, not thirty years. And that means, when damages are calculated, was this to get that far, which it won’t, then there would be a lookback of just three years of Carey’s earnings on it, plus, I suppose, the future. But it’s hypothetical because, again, this is just silly.

For the sake of argument, Mariah Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is You” was released in 1994, and it’s about as evergreen a Christmas song as has been recorded in my lifetime. And do not listen to it, even though I’m putting it up here. It’s June. Don’t do it.

Andy Stone who goes by the stage name Vince Vance, wrote his “All I Want For Christmas Is You” years prior, and his band, Vince Vance & The Valiants had a bit of a hit with it in the holiday season of 1993, so just before Mariah put out hers. I’ve been slightly surprised at the press coverage I’ve seen on this in that nobody seems to have heard of him or this song. I have known this song for years. In fact, it’s on the fairly short list of modern Christmas songs that I don’t hate. I certainly prefer it to Carey’s. And if you’ve never heard it, well, it’s still June, but just so you know what we’re talking about here, maybe listen to a few bars?

I like this song. But in the hundred or so times I’ve probably heard it, it certainly never crossed my mind that Carey’s song was derived from it, because it wasn’t. Musicology-wise, they simply don’t have much of anything in common other than their titles. But copyright law doesn’t protect ideas, titles, or short phrases. And it shouldn’t. The rest of the world needs to be able to go on using familiar phrases like “All I Want For Christmas Is…” as the basis for new works. There have been plenty of songs written under the title “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” and there should and will be more of them. Copyright doesn’t want to get in the way of that creativity.

Copyright law does protect expression. And these two expressions of all they respectively want for Christmas are entirely different. Beyond the shared titles, these two works have dissimilar time signatures, melodies, lyrics, chords, and everything else that musicologists look at.

And furthermore, Mariah Carey was probably THE biggest star in the world in 1994 when she put out “All I Want For Christmas.” So the idea that she needed to (as the complaint puts it) “exploit the popularity and unique style” of Vince Vance seems weird. But not the point. The point is the music is different.

There’s probably nothing more to say. It’s hard to imagine this going anywhere.

Written by Brian McBrearty