The legacy of the Michael Jackson-Crystal Cartier lawsuit

While TV networks aplenty have rehashed the late Michael Jackson's various legal battles over child-molestation allegations, they've neglected his early '90s court appearance in Denver, when he defended himself against accusations from singer-songwriter Crystal Cartier that the title track of the 1991 album Dangerous ripped off her 1988 tune of the same name. But Stan Soocher remembers. 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's currently 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. "I wasn't living in Colorado at the time," says Soocher, who's been at CU since 2000, "but I covered the Cartier trial. And it turned out to be quite an interesting case."

As Soocher notes, a precursor to the Cartier complaint took place in Illinois during the '80s. 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 featuring 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' 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.

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 points 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 speculates that some disagreements may have been settled not because they had any merit, but due to the fact that 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 says the self-proclaimed King of Pop 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 found Jackson's testimony fascinating. "He went through and described his writing process," he says. "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."

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 says. 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 says, and likely contributed to a verdict that cleared Jackson of wrongdoing.

Last year, the judge who oversaw this proceeding -- Edward Nottingham -- stepped down from the bench after reports that Judge Naughty had ties to an escort service. Things went better for Richard Gabriel, a lawyer who worked for Jackson. Last year, he was appointed to the Court of Appeals. And Soocher? In addition to reworking They Fought the Law to include segments featuring Phil Spector (he's focusing on a royalties fight that pitted him against ex-wife Ronnie Spector, not his infamous murder trial), he's penning a reference book tentatively titled Music Law Fundamentals.

Hopefully he'll save at least a footnote for Crystal Cartier.

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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