Rolling Stones Copyright Accuser Won’t Get No Satisfaction, Experts Say
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are facing allegations that they infringed two little-known songs, but experts say the lawsuit is unlikely to succeed.
When the Rolling Stones released “Living In A Ghost Town” in 2020, a lot had changed in the eight years since the legendary rock band had last put out a new song. Streaming music had become dominant, the UK had exited the European Union and a global pandemic had taken grip.
It had also seemingly become more common for the creators of hit songs to face lawsuits. In the wake of a multimillion-dollar verdict in 2015 against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams over “Blurred Lines,” a slew of major stars had faced similar copyright infringement cases over some of their biggest hits – including Taylor Swift, Katy Perry, Ed Sheeran, The Weeknd, Justin Bieber and Dua Lipa.
So it should have perhaps come as no surprise to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards when, last month, they were hit with a lawsuit claiming they’d illegally borrowed key parts of “Ghost Town.” Sergio Garcia Fernandez, who performs under the name Angelslang, alleged that they had “misappropriated many of the recognizable and key protected elements” from his 2006 song “So Sorry,” as well as his 2007 tune “Seed of God.” (Read the full complaint here.)
But such lawsuits, while plentiful, often face long odds. In just the past month, similar song-theft cases against Donald Glover (over his Childish Gambino chart-topper “This Is America”) and Nickelback (over the band’s 2005 hit “Rock Star”) have both been dismissed at the earliest stage of litigation. In Glover’s case, a federal judge ruled last week that the lyrics of the two songs were “entirely different.” In Nickelback’s dispute, another federal judge ruled the week prior that the case at times “borders on the absurd.”
And, according to legal and music experts, the new lawsuit against the Stones likely faces a similar fate.
“Living in a Ghost Town,” a blues-rock tune with some reggae vibes, does sound similar to “So Sorry” and “Seed of God.” Fernandez claims that’s because the new song borrowed key features from his songs, including the “vocal melodies, the chord progressions, the drum beat patterns, the harmonica parts [and] the electric bass line parts.”
But according to Joe Bennett, a forensic musicologist and a professor at Berklee College of Music, “Ghost Town” flatly does not include those elements from Fernandez’s songs. Full stop.
“It simply doesn’t,” Bennett says. “These elements are not the same when compared — all the notes and chords are very obviously different. It’s significant that the complaint doesn’t contain any music notation, because a simple side by side transcription would demonstrate the dissimilarity.”
So then why do the songs sound similar? Bennett says it’s because they share an overall vibe – based on mid-tempo rock grooves in the key of A minor – that’s been ubiquitous in rock and blues since the beginning. Without much digging, he pointed to at least four other songs that sound pretty similar, including B.B. King’s rendition of the “The Thrill Is Gone.” But those commonplace musical tropes cannot be monopolized by one band under copyright law.
“The similarities we hear aren’t protectable elements, and certainly not the intellectual property of Mr. Fernandez,” Bennett said. “The Stones didn’t copy from Fernandez, because they didn’t need to; they’ve been playing grooves like this for a very long time, as have many others.”
Beyond such musical problems, the case against the Stones also potentially suffers from a simpler legal flaw.
In any copyright lawsuit, an accuser needs to show that the alleged infringer had “access” to their work in order to copy it. In cases involving big songs – like in the looming trial against Sheeran over Marvin Gaye’s iconic “Let’s Get It On” – a plaintiff can easily argue that the song was so widely-available that the defendant obviously heard it. But the case against the Stones involves songs of far less renown; when the lawsuit was first filed, the allegedly-copied “So Sorry” listed less than 1000 streams on Spotify.
Faced with that situation, Fernandez instead aimed to directly show how the Stones might have heard the song. In his complaint, his lawyers wrote that he gave a demo CD to “an immediate family member” of Jagger, who then allegedly confirmed in writing that the songs had “a sound The Rolling Stones would be interested in using.”
But according to James Sammataro, a veteran copyright litigator and the co-chair of the music group at at the law firm Pryor Cashman, those arguments fall well short of what’s required under law.
He noted that the complaint “conspicuously” failed to name that family member, and also did not directly claim that they had actually handed the song off to Jagger or had been involved in creating “Ghost Town.”
“A charitable read of the complaint is that plaintiff purportedly gave his demo to a family member of Jagger who might have passed along the demo to Jagger, but that plaintiff has no idea whether it actually happened,” Sammataro wrote. “Such speculative allegations are far too attenuated to infer a reasonable possibility of access. If there was a strong claim of access, the plaintiff would have presumably pled it.”