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3 weird legal cases

On Behalf of | May 28, 2024 | Firm News

The American court system. Where serious issues & disputes are litigated by serious people. Or sometimes where the issues sound more like the premise of a Monty Python sketch. Below are three examples of weird legal cases, you can decide which category they fall into.

John Fogerty Plagiarism Scandal

John Fogerty is a music legend. A 1993 inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame for his run Creedence Clearwater Revival. With CCR, and in his solo work, Fogerty was known for his unique vocal style as well as his “swamp rock” guitar riffs.

But did you know that Fogerty was caught up in a plagiarism scandal with his 1984 release of the song “The Old Man Down the Road.”  The allegation? He copied the chorus of “Run Through the Jungle.”  Which means……he was accused of copying himself.

Before getting into the details, watch this video comparing the two songs to listen for yourself.

So, how is this kind of claim even possible? Well, to get out of his contract with Fantasy Records, Fogerty gave over his copyright & publishing rights to his songs from his CCR to Fantasy. Apparently, whoever was in charge at Fantasy felt that the songs were too similar and since they were then the copyright holder, they sued to protect their intellectual property.

The result? In the most rock and roll court testimony of all time, Fogerty took his guitar to the witness stand to play portions of each song to show that, while similar, they were unique compositions. His argument, that the court apparently found persuasive, is that musicians can have distinctive styles. And even when they’re not directly copying a prior work, it’s really hard for John Fogerty to not write/sing/sound like John Fogerty and he was successful in defending his work.

As a postscript, Fogerty was less successful when he then tried to claim attorneys’ fees as the prevailing party in a copyright claim. In a case that found its way to the United States Supreme Court, it was found that, while a losing claim, Fantasy’s lawsuit wasn’t frivolous. And copyright law should encourage creative works by granting copyright but also by not penalizing artists for trying, even if unsuccessfully, to protect their rights in court. So, even though he won, Fogerty ended up being out over $1 million in attorney fees.

What is a sandwich?

Sandwiches. You’ve had them. You love them. They can be hot, cold, toasted, meaty, or vegetarian. But how do you define a sandwich? Seriously, think a moment and come up with your working definition.

What did you come up with? Some variation of bread filled with something that can be eating with your hands? Sounds reasonable.

So, is a burrito a sandwich? It’s a question that has been the subject of more litigation than you might think. But why? Typically, the question comes up in the context of contracts in the restaurant business.

Let’s say you own a submarine sandwich shop. In your lease with the strip mall you operate out of you have included a clause that says that you’re the only sandwich shop that can operate in the strip. Some time later, a burrito shop opens up next door. Under your working definition (bread + filling + eat with hands = sandwich), the property company has breached its contract with you. So you sue to protect your business.

This issue famously came up in Massachusetts in the early-mid 2000s when Panera & Qdoba went head-to-head, or maybe rather “bread-to-bread.” The Massachusetts court that had the case eventually decided that a burrito is NOT a sandwich.

But it doesn’t end there, because Indiana has entered the chat. An Allen County case was decided in May of 2024 that decided that a taco IS a sandwich. The issue here? Because of local terms between the Fort Wayne Plan Commission and a condo association, the only restaurants allowed in a particular area were alcohol-free restaurants that did not allow outdoor seating and only sold “made-to-order or subway-style sandwiches.” Sidebar: Sounds a little over-specific to me, but what do I know about city planning.  Anyway, “The Famous Taco Mexican Grill” was denied the opportunity to open a restaurant at the location and he took it to court.

After two years of litigation, and Lord knows how much in legal fees, the Superior Court judge ruled in favor of the Famous Taco by stating that “The Court agrees with [Plaintiff] that tacos and burritos are Mexican-style sandwiches, and the original Written Commitment does not restrict potential restaurants to only American cuisine-style sandwiches. The original Written Commitment would also permit a restaurant that serves made-to-order Greek gyros, Indiana naan wraps, or Vietnamese banh mi if these restaurants complied with the other enumerated conditions.”

A personal opinion, the Court’s order in this case was issued on Monday May 13, 2024. It is a travesty that he did not release it on Taco Tuesday. Truly a missed opportunity.

When Wrestling gets Real

Through the 90s, one of the hottest battles on TV was between the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) and World Championship Wrestling (WCW). While WWF had long been the leader in the pro wrestling business, WCW came in hot by introducing “Monday Nitro” to compete head-to-head with WWF’s flagship show, Monday Night Raw.

Things got going in earnest when two former WWF champions, Scott Hall (a/k/a Razor Ramon) and Kevin Nash (a/k/a Diesel) signed on with WCW and showed up on WCW TV as “invading” the promotion. In this “New World Order” storyline, it was fairly heavily implied, though never stated, that Hall & Nash were coming down from WWF and going to war with WCW. Hall, in particular, used the same general look, speech & mannerisms as his Razor Ramon character, which was wholly owned by the WWF. As you can tell from the gist of this blog, the WWF sued.

In its suit, the WWF claimed that WCW was infringing on its intellectual property by using Hall with the Razor Ramon character details and using the Razor Ramon name in its own materials discussing Hall’s move from WWF to WCW.  In a United States District Court opinion, the Court described the Razor Ramon character developed by the WWF as having “a distinctive Hispanic accent, slicked back hair in a ponytail with a curl in the front, a toothpick in his mouth, a vest, and multiple chains around his neck.”  It bears noting that Scott Hall was NOT Hispanic and his accent and catchphrases were mostly an imitation of Al Pacino from the movie Scarface.

Now, I’ll be honest with you, I have no clue how this litigation ultimately panned out. As a child of the 90s, I can tell you that Hall eventually dropped the Cuban accent and WCW eventually went out of its way to make clear that Hall & Nash were not working for the WWF. I’m certain the litigation figured into that.

But the reason this lawsuit has always stuck out to me is Court’s description of the Razor Ramon character. The accent is certainly fair game, particularly given that it wasn’t a natural accent for Hall. But a vest & chains? Seems awfully generic to be able to trademark.

And what about the hair & toothpick? Aside from the Scarface rip-off (maybe Brian DePalma should have been the real plaintiff here), the hair & toothpick were probably the two most identifiable parts of the Razor Ramon character. How did WWF come up with such unique parts of Hall’s look?  Well, it certainly appears they stole it…..from WCW.

Prior to coming to the WWF, Hall worked in WCW as “The Diamond Studd.”  It wasn’t a terribly successful gimmick, but it definitely had a unique look. Included in that look was slicked back hair with a curl in the front, a toothpick in his mouth, and a perpetual 5 o’clock shadow. In short, it was basically Razor Ramon, sans accent. “Google “Diamond Studd WCW” and then Google “Razor Ramon WWF”.

Maybe it’s just me (it’s not), but the people in the two photos you just Googled look a lot alike. But what do I know?  I’m just a grown man who enjoys the pro wrestling of my youth.

Anyway, although the courts are very serious places and even these weird cases are important for principles of law & fairness, some cases are just weirder than normal. They make for interesting discussion or sometimes the subject matter just brings a smile to your face.

Go have a burrito, listen to some CCR, and greet a stranger with a “Hey yo!”  And stay safe out there.