June 29, 2022 Musicology No Comments

I like this song; the other one; not Mariah Carey’s; no, I mean the plaintiff’s.

“All I Want for Christmas Is You” by Vince Vance & The Valiants is a nice little holiday track.

Not so much in June, no, but a week before Christmas when I’ve heard the Mariah Carey version a hundred times, I’m always happy to hear this one. As for this lawsuit, well, Vince, who’s real name is Andy Stone took his shot, and is likely completely sincere in the belief that he’s been wronged, but it’s time to cut it out. There is nothing remotely here, musicologically speaking, that points to the inference that Carey stole his song.

Here’s plaintiff Andy Stone’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You.”

Mariah’s cash cow, “All I Want For Christmas Is You” does not infringe on that song. I wrote here on Musicologize that this case was “silly” as soon as I heard about it. I knew both songs well already, but looked anyway, just to see if I could imagine what the plaintiff was thinking, but apart from the titles, there are no noteworthy similarities between the two works. And the complaint filed by Stone, who performs as Vince Vance, contained no substantive arguments otherwise. Titles, by the way, are generally not protectable by copyright. And I figured that would soon be that.

However, now there’s an amended complaint from the plaintiff that describes “how” Carey’s “All I Want For Christmas Is you” is similar to Vince Vance’s “All I Want For Xmas Is You.”

Maybe I was too hasty? (No. There will be nothing the plaintiff can say that changes the fact that there’s nothing to be said. They can merely go from making no arguments to making unpersuasive ones.)

Some New, More Specific Claims

(I’ll be interpreting and paraphrasing from the new complaint in italics. These aren’t direct quotes.)

50% of Vance’s lyrics were copied or modified.

This is likely the core of their belief, and I do think they’re sincere, though delusional. If indeed the lyrics were half alike, that would be a ton. But lumping together “copied” and “modified” is vague and begging. “Copying,” the first pillar of infringement, is proven when the material is so similar that after considering, the sheer amount of similarity, and the specificity and novelty of those similarities, it becomes evident or even clear that the similarity is the result of copying. “Modified” is not remotely the same thing. “Modified” here assumes the best explanation for there being almost no lyrical similarities between the two works is that Carey and her co-writer intentionally wrote different but equivalent lyrics. That’s not a reasonable inference.

They tell the same story of not wanting “material things or seasonal comforts.”

This is very much the crux. And it’s not a particularly musicological one. It’s the question of “Where’s the similarity and where’s the protectable material in it?”

The problem is that “All I Want For Christmas” is an “idea,” whether the only thing wanted is “you,” or “my two front teeth,” or “peace on earth,” or a zillion other things that are not a bunch of presents wrapped and placed “underneath the Christmas tree.” This dichotomy will continue to be expressed, contrasting certain “material things or seasonal comforts.” with the “one thing you want,” in poems and songs forever.

Here the only time it’s expressed in the same way is in the lyric and title, “All I Want For Xmas Is You.” And this sounds to me like what the Ninth Circuit addressed in the “Merger Doctrine,” which says (I’ll paraphrase this as well, for better or worse) if the expression and the idea are inseparable because there are only so many ways to express the idea, then the expression isn’t protectable either.”

There’s a finite list of things we associate with Christmas, right? Snow, lights, cold, trees, presents, feasts, family, friends, stars in the east, and so forth? All fair game if you want to write a holiday track that makes 60 million like Mariah. Can poets go on contrasting the want of all those things with just wanting our loved one? Or is that idea the plaintiff’s to keep?

Doesn’t seem at all an interesting question to me.

But none of that is very musicological. Let’s see what’s coming at us from that angle…

The hook has the same contour, the last three notes are identical, and the accompaniment is the same.

No, yes, and yeah, but so what? The hook to which they refer is “All I Want For Christmas Is You” but of those eight syllables, only the last three are the same in pitch or even contour. The first five are about as dissimilar in both contour and pitch as they could be. As for the accompanying chords, yes, at “All I Want For Christmas,” the phrase that concludes the choruses of both works, the accompaniment is pretty much the same three chords in both works. But it’s also true that this is about as common a three-chord “concluding” progression as there is. And it’s also true that chords aren’t very protectable.

The melodic phrasing is comparable.

So what? It’s reasonably true that there are similarities in the contours here and there, in some of the lines in the verses for example. But the bar for similarity in melody is not remotely this. These melodies are dissimilar. There are no chains of identical notes.

Carey’s song shares the chord progression of Vance’s, including the ii-V-I beneath “All I Want For Christmas” and other similar chords and chord substitutions.

No, there are also no chains of similar chords.

Both contain “vi” and “minor-subdominant ‘if’ chords with an added sixth.”

I assume an ‘if’ chord is one you play along with the single utterance of “if” in your lyric?

Maybe they meant a minor iv chord.

They want to make something of the fact that both songs employ this chord because it’s a “borrowed” chord and not as common as some others, but it’s not at all novel or rare, in fact, I just thought to myself, “Let’s see… if Blueberry Hill, Please Come Home For Christmas or Jingle Bell Rock have that chord,” and I start thinking them in my head and hey, there we go, Jingle Bell Rock does. The others may, I don’t feel like thinking it through. You get the point. It’s not an interesting observation. Neither is the idea that they “share a harmonic language.” Language is shared. That’s its job.

“Several aspects of rhythm and meter are substantially similar”

They don’t tell us which several they’re talking about. They only mention the eighth notes in the piano. This is the Fats Domino Blueberry Hill type of figure — high piano notes that tap out the rhythm. The Don Henley Christmas tune, “Please Come Home For Christmas” does this. “Jingle Bell Rock” does this. Tons of songs do. This is not an interesting observation.

None of these similarities are interesting and they don’t add to the discussion. The question remains, is “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” as a lyric and a title protectable? And the answer is, “No, that would be silly.”

Written by Brian McBrearty