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Artist: John Fogerty
Album: Centerfield (Warner Brothers)
If you are a songwriter or any kind of artist, you probably would never imagine that you could be sued for copyright infringement of one of your own previous works. But this is just what happened to John Fogerty, in 1985.
John Fogerty had written many of the hit Creedence Clearwater Revival songs of the late 1960s and early ’70’s. However, many of the songs were owned by Fantasy Records, of California.
John Fogerty had taken a decade off from music since his last charted song in 1976, You Got the Magic, which peaked at NO. 87 on the Billboard pop charts. In 1884, signed with Warner Brothers Records, he released a single that sounded very close to his Creedence days, and is still an iconic song of his, The Old Man is Down the Road. The song got a lot of radio play and it went to NO. 10 on the charts.
Fantasy sued Fogerty in 1985, claiming that The Old Man Down the Road sounded like his 1970 Creedence Clearwater Revival song Run Through the Jungle, a song as central to CCR’s catalog as any song could possibly be. Since Fantasy owned the copyright to Run Through the Jungle, they essential claimed that Fogerty had copied himself, violating their copyright. Fantasy asked for $140 million in damages.
This opened up a question that perhaps had never been asked. Can an artist infringe on himself? Any fan of CCR and of Fogerty would scoff, along with any person with a reasonable knowledge of music. Not only do many of CCR’s songs have common elements, but so do many rock and roll songs, in general.
Let’s get one question out of the way? Are the two songs, in fact, similar? Yes, they are. There are distinctly similar elements in both songs. Even Fogerty acknowledges this. Many fans just “can’t hear” the similarities and I can understand why. But, the question is not really whether the songs are similar, but whether it makes any sense at all to sue a musician for copying himself. The further question is whether those elements of the songs that sound similar are, in fact, protectable.
Fantasy was barking up the wrong tree. John Fogerty brought his guitar to court and basically gave a music clinic. He played both songs for the jury and explained how the elements that “sounded similar” in the song were, in fact, not protectable at all, since they were common to many rock and roll songs. Forgerty not only won the lawsuit but was awarded attorney fees (later on in Supreme Court). Fogerty’s legal battles with Fantasy were nothing new, however. They were long and bitter and, in the end, suffered plenty for his art. As many people have put it through, he established that a songwriter had a right to “sound like himself.”
There was no love lost between Fogerty and the man behind Fantasy, Saul Zaentz. Fogerty had already sued Zaentz over royalties, and it probably did not help that Fogerty also put a song called Zantz Kant Danz, and another song called Mr. Greed. on the Centerfield album. You can guess who these songs were about. Zaentz sued him for defamation of character, causing Zanz Kant Danz to be renamed to Vanz Kant Danz.
Fogerty’s battles with Sault Zaentz over the rights to his songs, which anyone will agree are some of the most important rock songs ever written, and not just “roots rock,” lasted for decades, causing a lot of personal bitterness and musical stagnation for Fogerty.
But, in 2005 things came full circle. Fantasy Records was bought up by the Concord Music Group and instead of more warfare, came a partnership. Concord released the 25 track The Long Road Home: The Ultimate John Fogerty – Creedence Collection, which not had original Creedence recordings, but also Fogerty solo works including Centerfield, and, lo and behold, The Old Man Down the Road. Concord did not go so far as to restore Fogerty’s rights to his songs, saying that, after all, they had just paid a bunch of money for them, but they did restore the royalties he had originally given up to get out of his previous Fantasy contract. You can read more about it in a New York Times article from 2005.
Do The Old Man Down the Road and Run Through the Jungle really sound alike? They surely do and you can’t mistake it. However, you can’t mistake any Fogerty song. Listen to both songs below.
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