Nov 2023

“All I Want for Christmas Is” – A Copyright Lawsuit?

Just in time for the holidays, Mariah Carey, the self-described “Queen of Christmas” (although her trademark application for that mark was rejected in 2022), is being sued for copyright infringement over her perennial holiday mega-hit “All I Want for Christmas is You”, a song that garners millions of streams daily during the holiday season.  

The lawsuit was filed by Andy Stone, known professionally as Vince Vance of the band “Vince Vance and the Valiants,” and Troy Powers, who in their complaint, claim to have co-written a song of the same name released in 1989.  Mariah’s song was released in 1994. The complaint alleges that Carey’s iconic song copies their song’s “compositional structure of an extended comparison between a loved one and trappings of seasonal luxury.” In addition to what the complaint calls the “lyrical hook” of “All I want for Christmas is you,” the lawsuit maintains that Carey’s version also copies several other snippets of the Vince Vance and the Valiants version, amounting to – again, according to the complaint – “approximately 50% of ‘All I Want for Christmas is You.'”  

Substantial Similarity Is Likely the Key Test 

In cases such as this one, where the defendant isn’t accused of simply taking and copying an entire copyrighted work, courts regularly apply a “substantial similarity” test when deciding whether copyright infringement has occurred. As with many aspects of copyright law, the substantial similarity test is not applied the same way in every case. Courts applying the test will determine whether and to what extent the allegedly infringing work copies elements of the plaintiff’s work. To do this, they will consider factors such as:  

  • Did the defendant admit to being inspired by the earlier work when creating the allegedly infringing one?  
  • Did the defendant have access to the earlier work?  
  • What if any similarities are there between the works?  
  • What if any differences are there between the works? 
  • Is the subject matter broad – so that there are many ways to express the copyrightable idea – or narrow, so that there are only a few ways to say it?  

Where the subject matter of the copyrighted work is broad, courts will tend to allow a more significant amount of similarity between two works than in cases where the subject matter is narrow. That is because courts generally are careful not to stifle the free expression and development of ideas by granting too much protection to a copyrighted work.  

What About the Two “All I Want for Christmas Is You” Songs?  

It’s always fun (at least for a copyright lawyer) to compare two songs when one is accused of infringing the other. And while Mariah Carey is not being accused of using Vince Vance and the Valiants’ recording of “All I Want for Christmas is You,” it’s still instructive to compare their song as they recorded it with her song as she recorded it. Both are available on Spotify and other music delivery services, and to this ear, there is little that the Mariah Carey version has in common with Vince Vance’s, either musically or lyrically.  I even played the song for a colleague who is not a copyright attorney, and he quickly remarked about the Plaintiff’s infringement claim, “You’ve got to be kidding me.” 

Focusing then on the lyrics, since that’s what a court is likely to do, while it’s clear that both songs do repeat the phrase “all I want for Christmas is you,” there isn’t a lot else from the Vince Vance song that can be found in the Mariah Carey song (despite the complaint’s assertion that 50% of Mariah Carey’s song was copied from the plaintiffs’). While the two songs do generally cover the concept of not wanting material goods for Christmas in preference to having their loved one close by, so do many other Christmas songs that focus on the joys of friends and family spending time together during the season rather than the fun of receiving gifts.  

In addition, even the title shared by the two songs has appeared in very similar forms more than once, going as far back as the 1940s with Spike Jones’s now-classic “All I Want for Christmas (Is My Two Front Teeth),” and more recently with Liam Payne’s “All I Want (For Christmas)” (2019), Dan Rodriguez’s “All I Want for Christmas Is Whiskey” (2015), and the 2011 song “All I Want for Christmas is New Year’s Day” by the group Hurts.  

While it’s dangerous to predict how any copyright infringement lawsuit will turn out, it does appear that this one is likely to be an uphill battle for the plaintiff, but given that Mariah’s song has over one billion streams on Spotify alone it seems like this is a battle that the plaintiff is not giving up on that easily.    

 As an aside, Mariah Carey’s attorneys have asked for and received an extension to respond to the complaint – until December 27, 2023.   

 Carrie Ward Can Help You With Your Copyright Issues 

Carrie Ward has spent years as an attorney focused on copyright and other types of intellectual property law. Her clients include media companies, musicians, filmmakers, and podcasters. With an in-house background at ABC and Entercom Communications (now known as Audacy), Carrie looks at legal issues from the client’s perspective and comes up with answers to help her clients get things done. 

 She regularly serves as outside general counsel for her corporate clients. She has a strong background in advertising and promotions law and has prosecuted thousands of FCC applications of various types.