In 1993, former Creedence Clearwater Revival singer John Fogerty found himself at the center of a case being argued before the United States Supreme Court. The country’s highest court wasn’t debating whether Bayou Country or Green River was the superior CCR album. Instead, Fogerty was in the middle of an important, somewhat obscure corner of copyright law.
The seeds for Fogerty’s day in court traced back 23 years to 1970. That April, CCR released the Fogerty-penned “Run Through the Jungle” as a single that would eventually be certified gold by the RIAA. “Run Through the Jungle” is a solid tune, but it didn’t really grab headlines until 1985 when Fogerty released a solo track called “The Old Man Down the Road.”
“The Old Man Down the Road” is a pretty nice song, too; it even cracked the top 10 on the singles charts. One person wasn’t a fan, though. Saul Zaentz, who owned CCR’s old label Fantasy Records, also owned the copyright to “Run Through the Jungle.” Zaentz felt that “The Old Man Down the Road” was simply “Run Through the Jungle” with different words. In other words, John Fogerty had plagiarized a John Fogerty song to which he didn’t own the copyright.
Zaentz felt he had a case, so he sued Forgerty in federal court for copyright infringement.
(It’s worth noting that Zaentz and Fogerty weren’t on the best of terms in the first place. The same 1985 album that featured “The Old Man Down the Road,” Centerfield, also included the tracks “Mr. Greed” and “Zanz Kant Danz.” Critics and fans saw these songs as pointed attacks on Zaentz, and the label head initiated a separate $144 million defamation lawsuit that claimed Fogerty portrayed him as “a thief, robber, adulterer, and murderer.” The two sides settled that suit out of court.)
Defamation aside, was there any merit to the copyright claims? Have a listen and decide for yourself:
"Run Through the Jungle"
“The Old Man Down the Road”
The case ended up before a jury in Federal District Court in San Francisco in late 1988. The two-week trial featured Fogerty taking the witness stand with guitar in hand to explain that yes, the two songs may have sounded somewhat similar, but they were both variations on his signature “swamp rock” style. Simply put, of course two John Fogerty songs sounded the same.
This logic seemed pretty sound to the jury. It only took two hours of deliberation for the jury to determine that the two songs didn’t meet the legal standard of being “substantially similar” that would have constituted copyright infringement. The Fogerty camp let out a collective “huzzah!”
The real legal action was just warming up, though. Since Fogerty had successfully defended himself against Fantasy Records’ suit, he sought reimbursement for his attorney’s fees. No dice. If the plaintiff, Fantasy, had been successful in its suit against Fogerty, the label would have been able to seek its lawyer fees from the musician. Since Fogerty had been a prevailing defendant, though, the court ruled that he could only seek fees if he could show that Fantasy’s suit was frivolous or had been made in bad faith. Fantasy’s suit may not have panned out, but it didn’t fit those criteria.
This decision put Fogerty in a sticky spot. Sure, he had won the case, but he was on the hook for $1.09 million in fees for his attorneys and those of his current label, Warner Brothers. Fogerty and his team didn’t think this arrangement was very fair, so they appealed the decision. In 1993 the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit shot down that appeal, though, on the same grounds—the original suit had been neither frivolous nor brought in bad faith.
After that failed appeal, Fogerty v. Fantasy – which would be an awesome title for a Fogerty concept record about battling elves, by the way – ended up in front of the Supreme Court. Fogerty’s camp made the same argument: that it made no sense to have a dual standard for plaintiffs and defendants seeking reimbursement for lawyer fees under the Copyright Act of 1976.
In March 1994, the Supreme Court issued a 9-to-0 decision in favor of Fogerty. Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist wrote that there was nothing in the Copyright Act of 1976 that implied that Congress wanted anything other than a level playing field when it came to awarding attorney’s fees to the prevailing party. (Rehnquist also hinted at a bit of Creedence fandom, writing that CCR "has been recognized as one of the greatest American rock and roll groups of all time.")