Taylor Swift Trial Echoes Michael Jackson's Trip to Denver Court

The Taylor Swift case, which begins jury selection today, recalls Michael Jackson's trip to court in Denver more than twenty years ago.
The Taylor Swift case, which begins jury selection today, recalls Michael Jackson's trip to court in Denver more than twenty years ago. File photo/Eric Gruneisen
Today, jury selection begins in the court battle between former Denver DJ David Mueller and pop star Taylor Swift; he claims she got him fired by falsely accusing him of groping her prior to a June 2013 concert at the Pepsi Center, while she maintains that Muller "reached up  under my skirt and grabbed my ass right when I was having to pose for a photo" that was subsequently made public against the wishes of all parties involved. The controversy has resulted in the biggest celebrity trial in Denver since 1994, when King of Pop Michael Jackson was hauled into court after being accused of plagiarism by Crystal Cartier, a local singer-songwriter.

Cartier argued that the the title track of Jackson's 1991 album Dangerous ripped off her 1988 tune of the same name, and even though she lost in court, her largely forgotten legal battle has actually had significant repercussions, just as the Swift-Mueller face-off could.

In 2009, after Jackson's shocking death, we revisited the Cartier case with the help of Stan Soocher, an associate professor of music and entertainment-industry studies working on the University of Colorado's Denver campus. Soocher is the author of They Fought the Law: Rock Music Goes to Court, a book published in 1998 that he was then updating for reissue — and he devoted an entire chapter of the tome to copyright issues involving Jackson, with significant attention paid to l'affaire Cartier. As Soocher told us, "I wasn't living in Colorado at the time, but I covered the Cartier trial. And it turned out to be quite an interesting case."

A precursor to the Cartier complaint took place in Illinois during the ’80s, Soocher noted. In that matter, a composer sued CBS Records, Jackson's label, claiming that "The Girl Is Mine," a Jackson duet with Paul McCartney included on the mega-selling 1982 platter Thriller, stole its essence from a ditty called "Please Love Me Now." The plaintiff claimed that he'd submitted a demo tape including the latter to the imprint, making unauthorized borrowing possible. In response, CBS, representing Jackson, who wasn't specifically named in the court filing but did take the witness stand to defend himself, claimed independent creation and prior common source — a pair of legal concepts that laymen might find mildly contradictory.

As the name implies, independent creation argues that the similarities between disputed songs are entirely coincidental, because the artists came up with the tunes on their own. In contrast, prior common source posits that said song resembles other compositions that might have served as conscious or unconscious inspirations. In the case of "The Girl Is Mine," CBS's attorneys cited three highly disparate possibilities: "Longer, by Dan Fogelberg, plus the themes from two television shows: Cheers, the iconic sitcom, and Maverick, a vintage Western.

click to enlarge Crystal Cartier in 2015. - FACEBOOK
Crystal Cartier in 2015.
The decision in respect to "The Girl Is Mine" wasn't a slam dunk; jurors deliberated for more than twenty hours. Eventually, though, they sided with CBS — and afterward, the company made changes that would have repercussions throughout the music biz. "The case led CBS to institute a general policy of not accepting unsolicited submissions," Soocher pointed out. "It was a real blow to new artists trying to get their music heard, especially in the pre-Internet days. But it became the industry standard."

Cut to the Cartier trial, in early 1994. Jackson had been sued numerous times since "The Girl Is Mine" brouhaha, but none of those issues got to the point where he had to testify. Soocher speculated that some disagreements may have been settled not because they had any merit, but because a cash payment would be less expensive than drawn-out litigation. However, Cartier turned down a settlement offer, and her persistence forced Jackson's gloved hand.

Soocher recalled that Jackson came to Denver with as little fanfare as possible, turning up at the courthouse in an anonymous van and entering the building via a side door. Cartier, for her part, arrived in a limousine in an outfit that struck Soocher and plenty of other observers as much more outrageous than what Jackson wore. That kind of thing didn't happen to MJ very often.

As a music lover (he got his start as a rock journalist before turning to the law and then academia), Soocher was fascinated by Jackson's testimony, which is accessible online. "He went through and described his writing process," he said. "For anyone who wanted to know how he came up with his material, it was a very good explanation. It was like taking a course from Michael Jackson on how he wrote his songs — very enlightening and very colorful."

The alleged "sexual assault" photo featuring Taylor Swift and Denver DJ David Mueller, seen with KYGO Shannon Melcher, that was obtained by TMZ. - TMZ
The alleged "sexual assault" photo featuring Taylor Swift and Denver DJ David Mueller, seen with KYGO Shannon Melcher, that was obtained by TMZ.
Of course, Jackson's legal team relied on more than their client's word to establish his innocence. "Experts are brought into these trials with charts and graphs. They'll talk about song structures and compare one to the other," Soocher allowed. But this approach is of dubious value, in Soocher's view. "These things are really determined from the point of view of the average listener — so ultimately it's up to the jury or the judge to decide if something sounds too much like something else. Now, in fact, many copyright-infringement cases are dismissed by judges at the pre-trial stage. A judge will say, 'I'll listen to it like I listen to all music, and then I'll decide.'"

Cartier's argument was weak on these grounds; to this listener, Jackson's "Dangerous" was hardly a clone of hers. And she undermined herself further by not presenting an original 1988 recording in court. According to Soocher, Cartier said she gave out all the demos of her song long before the Dangerous album's release — so she recorded a new version. The court's determination not to accept such a remake constitutes "an important procedural point that came out of the case," Soocher said, and is likely to have contributed to a verdict that cleared Jackson of wrongdoing.

By the way, Cartier's website lists her city of residence as Aurora. A 2015 post reads in part, "I cried when MJ died because it closed the door on any future hope of reconciliation. But one thing remains clear.... I do not want the stigma of warring with MJ to be my only legacy."

It's too soon to know if Swift will win the day in the current case, which is likely to turn on a different kind of interpretation — whether the aforementioned photo, seen here, shows a "sexual assault," as her legal team maintains, or an innocent pose that was badly misconstrued. But if Swift does indeed testify, as is widely expected, her appearance will be the starriest in a Denver-area courthouse since Jackson's more than 23 years ago.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts