With plagiarism lawsuits regularly blurring the lines of America’s legal system lately, some musical artists have taken to preemptively giving credit to songwriters if their tracks sound even remotely similar to another song. Taylor Swift did it with “Look What You Made Me Do” because she thought it sounded like Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy” and Portugal. The Man did the same with “Feel It Still” and the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman.” But such a move wouldn’t have helped John Fogerty, when he faced a bizarre self-plagiarism suit in the mid-Eighties.
When he put out “The Old Man Down the Road,” the swinging first single off his mega-selling Centerfield album, in late 1984, the label that owns his old Creedence Clearwater Revival recordings, Fantasy, Inc., alleged he’d ripped off his own “swamp-rock” hit “Run Through the Jungle.” While the songs have similar vibes (much like in the recent Marvin Gaye and Robin Thicke lawsuit), they sound pretty different all these years later. For years, Fogerty and Fantasy’s chairman, Saul Zaentz, had sparred over money and business matters (Fogerty refused to play CCR songs for more than a decade), but this suit, which also named Warner Bros. as a defendant, was the apex.
A six-person jury decided in Fogerty’s favor in November 1988 that he did not steal his own song. The singer-songwriter showed up for each day of the two-week trial and even spent one day playing bits and bobs of “Proud Mary,” “Fortunate Son” and the two songs at issue for the court. He estimated that he’d spent “about $400,000, more than the song earned” in his legal defense. He later countersued Fantasy to get his legal fees back in a suit that went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in his favor in 1994.
One of the reasons he fought especially hard was because he was afraid that if Fantasy won, it would have set a dangerous precedent for songwriters. “What’s at stake is whether a person can continue to use his own style as he grows and goes on through life,” he told Rolling Stone at the time. “I can feel Lennon, Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Leiber and Stoller standing behind me going, ‘Johnny, don’t blow this.'”
When it was done, Fogerty told reporters that Fantasy hadn’t paid him any royalties since it had filed the suit against him. Instead, it held some $1.5 million in escrow. Rolling Stone reported at that time that Fogerty told the press room, “Hey, let’s all go over to Fantasy right now and get it.”
Fogerty reflected on the case in his 2015 memoir, Fortunate Son: My Life, My Music. He said the hardest part was hearing that Creedence’s bassist, Doug Clifford, had been the one to point out the songs’ similarities to Zaentz. “I felt that I had been stabbed in the back,” he wrote. “To intentionally go see Saul — a person who’d cheated and lied and really treated all of us like crap — and do that? I’m the guy who actually provided you with millions of dollars, Stu. So that strange bedfellow is the one you climb into bed with — against me?“
Furthermore, he wrote that it took him years to write a song “anywhere near the territory of ‘The Old Man Down the Road,’ because some part of me worried that I was going to get sued again.” It wasn’t until 2007, he wrote, that he attempted “swamp rock” again for his Revival LP.