“Creedence Clearwater Revival” lead vocalist John Fogerty made history 30 years ago this week when he was sued by his record label for “plagiarizing” himself. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court and set a valuable copyright precedent
It may be Fogerty’s most significant contributions to music, beyond his iconic catalog of music, if that’s possible.
Creedence, or CCR as it was known, rocketed to fame in the early ’70s powered by Fogerty’s vocals, considered one of the most distinctive voices in rock. He was joined by his brother rhythm guitarist Tom Fogerty, bassist Stu Cook, and drummer Doug Clifford.
Fogerty was not only lead vocalist, but also played lead guitar and wrote most of the band’s early songs. But after four year’s of wild success, the band was rocked by infighting and Fogerty finally quit to become a solo artist in 1972.
After a one-off record, where he called himself “The Blue Ridge Rangers,” he rebounded with a solo record in 1985 called “The Old Man Down the Road.” But Saul Zaentz, who owned CCR’s then-label Fantasy Records and the copyrights to most of the band’s songs was incensed.
He believed the song was the same CCR’s 1970 Fogerty hit “Run Through the Jungle,” of which he happened to own the rights. To block the song, he infamously filed a lawsuit charging Fogerty with plagiarizing one of the songs he’d written for the band.
To say there was bad blood between the two would be an understatment. “The Old Man Down the Road appeared on the same 1985 album Centerfield as the songs “Mr. Greed” and “Zanz Kant Danz.” The latter were clearly inspired by their feud.
That led to a second Zaentz suit for defamation, claiming he’d been portrayed in the songs as “a thief, robber, adulterer and murderer.” Zaentz demanded the sensational amount of $144 million in damages, according to reports at the time.
The Zaentz lawsuit finally went to trial in Federal District Court in San Francisco in 1988. Fogerty actually took the stand with his guitar and showed the jury how the two songs were simply an iteration of his signature “swamp rock” style.
The jury agreed and threw out the suit. It found that the songs were not “substantially similar,” the legal threshold for copyright infringement.
Fogerty petitioned for nearly $2 million attorney’s fees and other costs from Zaentz but his request was rejected by the court because he couldn’t prove that the case was filed frivolously or in bad faith.
In contrast, copyright law specifically provides for fees in cases where the plaintiff wins. Fogerty appealed and the case arguing that the law created a double standard. It finally landed before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1993.
The following year, Fogerty v. Fantasy reached a conclusion. The high court found unanimously, 9-0, that the dual standard for lawyer fees under the Copyright Act of 1976 was unconstitutional. The purpose of the act, the court said, was to create a level playing field and that included the awarding of legal fees.
The defamation suit was ultimately settled out of court. Saul went on to greater things. He won the Academy Award for Best Picture three times as a producer and was awarded the Irving G. Thalberg Memorial Award in 1996. He died in 2014.
Since then, the label, Fantasy, has been re-booted, while Fogerty keeps on rollin’ along. He’s released five solo albums and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame (2005) since the landmark case was decided.
In September a year ago, Fogerty, now 73, signed a new recording contract with BMG Rights Management, for a new album and his solo catalog.
Check out the two songs below: