'Swamp rock' star may sue over costs in copyright case, court rules

March 02, 1994|By Lyle Denniston | Lyle Denniston,Washington Bureau of The Sun

WASHINGTON -- With an out-of-character bow to a rock 'n' roller's fame, the Supreme Court gave "swamp rock" legend John Fogerty a unanimous legal victory yesterday. His fame, though, had nothing to do with it.

Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, in a rare public display of a judicious appreciation of popular music, noted that Mr. Fogerty's late-1960s group, Creedence Clearwater Revival, is "one of the great American rock and roll groups of all time."

Further, the chief justice said, Mr. Fogerty and his band "developed a distinctive style of music, dubbed 'swamp rock' by the media."

That tribute was on the opening two pages of Mr. Rehnquist's opinion. Eighteen pages later, the chief justice concluded with a ruling that could help Mr. Fogerty recoup more than $1 million to pay his lawyers.

Those lawyers had successfully defended the swamp rocker against a claim that he illegally copied one of his own and most famous songs, "Run Through the Jungle" (after the rights to "Run" had been sold to someone else: Fantasy Inc.).

After Creedence broke up in 1972, Mr. Fogerty went on as a song writer. In 1984, he released "Centefield" -- his first album in 10 years.

It was one tune on that release, "Old Man Down the Road," that got Mr. Fogerty into trouble with Fantasy, the owners of "Run Through the Jungle." They claimed that it was the same tune with new words. But a jury ruled for Mr. Fogerty nearly six years ago, thus ending the claim of copyright violation.

During that legal bout, Mr. Fogerty and the album's publisher had spent more than $1 million for attorneys' fees and legal costs; he was responsible for paying all of them. Having won the copyright case, he asked that Fantasy cover his costs.

His claim was rejected by lower courts, which had followed a rule that one who fights off a copyright infringement lawsuit may not recover legal fees, even though one who filed such a lawsuit and won could.

Yesterday, by a 9-0 vote, the Supreme Court said that "dual standard" was illegal and that each side in an infringement case should have a chance to recover its fees if it won. That clears the way for Mr. Fogerty to pursue his claim in a lower court.

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