Mariah Carey was sued for copyright infringement in June 2022
Mariah Carey performs at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree lighting ceremony in New York in 2014:
Photo: Charles Sykes/AP via The Guardian

Another week, another spurious music copyright infringement lawsuit. On Friday, Mariah Carey and co-writer Walter Afanasieff were sued by songwriter Andrew Stone (BBC news story) for allegedly infringing the identically-titled song All I Want For Christmas Is You (1989). We’ll refer to the songs as XMAS89 and XMAS94. Here’s the complaint (Case 2:22-cv-01616-WBV-DMD, Eastern District of Louisiana).

[words, transcriptions & research: William Weston Bennett, Joe Bennett]

Mariah Carey – All I Want For Christmas Is You (Official Video) (1994)

Vince Vance & The Valiants – All I Want for Christmas Is You (1989)

Per the complaint document, XMAS94 is allegedly a “version” and a “copy” of XMAS89. But musical specifics are conspicuously absent—they don’t mention melody, chord progression, song form, or lyric. Foolishly, they did not commission a musicologist report. (But we would say that, wouldn’t we?)

Melodic similarity (none)

Stone’s claim seems to be built entirely on the shared title, “All I Want For Christmas Is You.” Beyond that, the songs are clearly and obviously different throughout. The lyrics are only similar inasmuch as they share Christmas tropes: “I don’t need sleigh rides in the snow/Don’t want a Christmas that’s blue” intones the protagonist of XMAS89, nodding knowingly to other holiday classics. Melodically, there’s a superficially compelling correspondence in the setting of the title phrase: “is you” descends to the root note, with the latter syllable landing on the downbeat in both works. But, as elsewhere, this is just a well-worn widget in the pop toolkit: compare to “…is you” from “All I Want is You” by U2, “…love you” from “I Will Always Love You” by Whitney Houston, and even “…to you” in “Happy Birthday.” Likewise, the chord progressions are comparable solely to the extent that they embrace familiar sequences, including the de rigeur secret chord that makes Christmas music sound so Christmassy.”

That “secret chord” article attracted some criticism from the musicologically-minded, most of whom were suspicious of how casually it tethered a fairly common minor IV chord (the “secret” one in question) to a specific set of cultural connotations (“Christmassy”). But academic qualms aside, it usefully alerts us to a general insight about holiday pop: the very idea of a “Christmas song,” as it stands today, is defined by a startlingly concise repertory of compositional tropes, including harmonies (the “secret chord”), lyric images (mistletoe, Santa Claus), or instruments (sleigh bells).

XMAS89 isn’t original

There is no doubt that Stone understood the draw of these festive formulae when he wrote XMAS89. Apart from the aforementioned lyric tropes, there are some striking similarities between his composition and earlier works in the Christmas canon. The chord progression and melodic contour in XMAS89’s verse, for example, are a dead ringer for the same part of the verse in “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” (1952): check out how the vocal line descends through a minor arpeggio, with the same long-short-long rhythm, as the harmony moves from chord I to iii. 

And the third phrase of that verse is astonishingly similar to the corresponding line in the 1943 classic “I’ll Be Home For Christmas”: again, the chord progression is near-identical, as is the ascending triadic melody (“mist-le-toe”/”San-ta Claus”):

Bizarrely, the lyrics here are exact matches too, but switched: XMAS89′ “mistletoe” is sung to the melody of “Santa Claus” in Mommy…, while XMAS89’s “Santa Claus” is sung to the I’ll Be Home… setting of “mistletoe”. Of course, this has no direct bearing on whether Carey (and cowriter Walter Afanasieff) copied from Stone—but it does raise the question of whether those in gingerbread houses should be throwing snowballs.

Given how generic (if not outright derivative) much of XMAS89 seems to be, it is no surprise that Stone and his representatives downplay compositional specifics in his complaint, and opt instead for a strangely tautological argument. It is almost implied that no two songs could share this title: “All I Want For Christmas Is You” is a composition by Stone; therefore, so this logic goes, when Carey released “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” she infringed his copyright. But…

“All I Want For Christmas” is a well-used title (and concept)

Like many frivolous copyright lawsuits, the complainant failed to do their repertoire research. A large number of earlier songs have a similar or identical title, most of which feature the same general I’d-give-up-Christmas-to-be-with-you lyric theme. Here’s a selection:

  • “You’re All I Want For Christmas,” Bing Crosby (1949)
  • “All I Want For Christmas Is Your Love,” Sandy Warner (1959)
  • “All I Want For Christmas is You,” Carla Thomas (1963)
  • “All I Want For Christmas, Dear, Is You,” Buck Owens and His Buckaroos (1965)
  • “All I Want For Christmas,” Jackie Gleason (LP title, 1969)
  • “I Just Want You For Christmas,” The Golddiggers (1979)

Of these, Carla Thomas’s identically-titled “All I Want For Christmas is You” (1963) was certainly popular: she recorded and released it a second time in 1966, and then again in 1979. There’s even a Kelly Clarkson cover version. Sheila Davis’s The Songwriter’s Idea Book (1992), published two years before XMAS94, goes so far as to describe this earlier song as a “Perennial Favorite” in the festive repertoire.

Carla Thomas – All I Want For Christmas Is You

Granted, many of these compositions might now only be encountered in the dustiest of record crates, but the fact that they ended up pressed to vinyl in the first place should temper any claims of obscurity. Clearly, not all are “perennial favorites,” but nor are they all esoteric in the extreme: Bing is represented, as is Jackie Gleason, and Buck Owens was a country superstar with a widely-watched TV show. Indeed, if we look elsewhere, we see that identical antecedents (and sentiments) are even more widespread, suggesting that these recordings are just the tip of the icicle.

The 1960 Library of Congress catalog of copyrights records a remarkable five entries with either an identical or an analogous title: 

  • “All I Want For Christmas,” James Pickerell (copyright filed 27th November 1959)
  • “All I Want For Christmas, Darling, Is You,” Mary Ingram (16th November 1959)
  • “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” A. Scott Beach (12th August 1959)
  • “All I Want For Christmas Is You,” Bill Phillips (30 July 1959)
  • “All I Want For Christmas is Your Love,” Steve Allen (16th November 1959) 

In other words, in 1959, five songs with the same or similar name were registered for copyright in as many months—indeed, two were registered on the very same day!

Nothing to see here

So to recap: Stone’s song is not an original title, not an original sentiment, has no musical similarity to Carey’s song, and itself is melodically and lyrically similar to earlier Christmas hits. How the heck did he find a law firm to represent him with such an obviously false allegation of copyright infringement?!

This leaves us with a conundrum: how can we acknowledge songwriters’ well-deserved sense of ownership over their authorial efforts, when those efforts might be less than original? Some will be quick to accuse the litigant here as opportunistic, and label his case a cash-grab—well, let’s just say that’s not totally implausible. But, assuming the best—which we at JBMS do as a matter of course—there is a fascinating psychological subtext to such cases, which deserves our attention and understanding (Joe’s doctoral research is, in part, an exploration of that psychology),

The claims of infringement in this case, as in so many others, seem to be underwritten by an irrational intuition from the complainant that their own song must be unique, and that the chances of another artist independently creating the same seem impossible. And this view is almost always incorrect; coincidences happen, especially when the options are limited. If popular song is a constrained art form, Christmas music is a box within a box.

But seasonal goodwill aside, in the world of copyright infringement, lines have to be drawn somewhere. Sometimes songwriters come up with similar ideas, and even identical titles. This is not evidence of plagiarism, still less copyright infringement.

Words, transcriptions and research: William Weston Bennett, Joe Bennett