The White Stripes could face a copyright-infringement suit over "The Union Forever," which borrows liberally from Citizen Kane. The song, from the band's 2001 White Blood Cells, takes its title and most of its lyrics from the 1941 Orson Welles film. A spokesperson for Warner Bros., which owns the distribution rights to Citizen Kane, told Rolling Stone that the company is "reviewing the matter."
White Blood Cells has moved more than 650,000 copies to date in the U.S. alone, according to SoundScan. That could make a lawsuit worth serious money.
"I believe that Warner Bros. has a reasonable case against the White Stripes," says copyright attorney Sam Ibrahim. "In the event that a court found infringement, Warner Bros. could get an injunction to stop future sales. The band could be found liable for millions of dollars in damages, and to keep selling [the album] they would have to pay a royalty. It could be in excess of three or four million dollars."
The Stripes don't mention the film in the album's credits, which read "All songs written and performed by the White Stripes," but Jack White has been open about "The Union Forever"'s roots in Citizen Kane. "There's a song in the film 'It Can't Be Love, Because There Is No True Love' at a party they have in the Everglades," he told Rolling Stone just before Cells' release. "I was trying to play it on guitar, and I went through the film and started writing down things that might rhyme and make sense together."
Copyright attorney Laurence Pulgram explains that White's patchwork writing method could actually be the band's primary defense. "The White Stripes would argue that its use is transformative," he says, "in that it does not merely copy the film in a film, but takes bits and pieces of the film and transforms them into a song; and that this will not reduce sales or otherwise affect the 'market' for the film."
A spokesperson for the White Stripes had no comment by press time.