Friday, June 11, 2010

How Copyright Got its Mojo

Hi Blog Readers! Once again, we're taking time away from your important questions to do some tireless self-promotion for our new book, The Judge Who Hated Red Nail Polish, and today's tale fits in with an issue that's been arising quite a bit lately -- the standard for protecting short phrases. And equally important it deals with a powerful supernatural force that the Dear RIch Staff wishes it had more of -- mojo! So here's an excerpt about a kooky little copyright case called Strachborneo v. Arc Music (357 F. Supp 1393 (S.D. N.Y. 1973). 
How Copyright Got its Mojo
Sol Rabinowitz didn't know much about copyright law or running a record label when he founded Baton Records in the early fifties ... but he learned fast. One of the songs he acquired for his label was I've Got My Mo-Jo Working (But It Just Won't Work on You) written by Preston Foster and performed by Ann Cole. (The "hook" for the song is the oft-repeated title.) 
A warning to the artists. Rabinowitz had warned his artists not to perform songs before their releases--a practice that sometimes resulted in quickie covers that beat Baton's artists to the marketplace--but Cole performed the song regularly while on a tour with blues star Muddy Waters. Waters (aka McKinley Morganfield) loved the tune and when he returned to Chicago he recorded it for Chess Records, creating what many critics believe is one of the classic blues recordings. In the studio, Waters couldn't remember all the Preston Foster lyrics, so he modified the final verses with what he thought were the correct words and claimed songwriting credits. Unbeknownst to Rabinowitz, Chess Records released their Muddy Waters version within one week of the Baton Records release. 
Chart-toppers. Although Ann Cole's version was the more popular release at the time (it went to #3 on the charts), the Muddy Waters version came into its own and eventually made it onto Rolling Stone Magazine's top 500 songs of all time. Both Waters and Preston Foster claimed copyright for the tune, and Rabinowitz had no choice but to hire lawyers to chase Waters and Chess Records. The result--Preston Foster was declared the sole songwriter and Rabinowitz's music publishing company, Dare Music, was the owner. A settlement for payment was reached between the parties. That cleared the way for Foster and Rabinowitz to earn the songwriting income from Waters' version as well as the 150 to 200 versions by artists who later covered the song, (including The Zombies, Jimmy Smith, Art Blakey, Canned Heat, Elvis Presley, B. B. King, Buddy Guy, Otis Rush, and Eric Clapton). 
Here comes Ms. S.  For almost two decades that income was unthreatened, until the early 1970s when a woman named Ruth Stratchborneo, writer of a song entitled Mojo Workout, claimed that she was the originator of the phrase "Got my Mojo Working" and that she had sung a version for a television commercial in 1955 (although she hadn't recorded a version of her song until at least 1960). She claimed that Foster's song had been based on hers and that she was entitled to royalties from both Foster's song and from Muddy Waters's version. Rabinowitz hired a lawyer, but one of his concerns was whether Preston Foster should testify. According to Rabinowitz, Foster was "one of the shyest human beings I've ever met." Rabinowitz's lawyer told his client that Foster was so introverted, "We're gonna have to do something else. We can't put this guy on the stand." 
Court is in session. The case had been assigned to the late district court judge Charles L. "Charlie" Brieant, Jr., known for his bowtie and Rollie-style mustache, as well as his ability to dispose of controversial cases--one angry defendant sent poisoned chocolates to the judge's wife (she survived the murder attempt). To succeed on her copyright claim, Stratchborneo would have to prove that Foster had access to her Mojo Workout and that the two songs were substantially similar. Brieant demonstrated that Foster had no access to Stratchborneo's version of the tune before he wrote his song. And even if there had been access--and this is where the judge really showed his stuff--the songs were not substantially similar. 
Defining mojo. Before explaining his logic, Judge Brieant insisted that an understanding of the litigation required defining "MOJO," which he referred to as "a collective noun used to describe one or more talismanic objects believed to have power intrinsic to their nature, and believed able to impart power, or ward off evil or misfortune by being worn close to the body of, or possessed by, the person to whom the MOJO appertains. A simple example of MOJO would be a rabbit's foot. Other examples of MOJO, mentioned from time to time in the trial record, include such amulets as black cat bones, shrunken heads, lodestones, half dollar with seeds, four leaf clover, ashes, blacksnake skin, strands of hair and teeth. MOJO is often worn around the neck in a leather bag or carried on the person. MOJO may, in a pastoral society, be taken into the fields with the cattle." Having provided that background, Brieant noted, "Reliance on and belief in MOJO naturally leads to the conversational gambit, "Have you got your MOJO working?" or "I've got my MOJO working." A person approaching a crisis, such as an examination at school, would be sure to have his MOJO with him, and working."
Freedom of the mojo. Then in a moment of judicial activism for which all MOJO holders will be forever grateful, Judge Brieant liberated and forever guaranteed the freedom of any songwriter to use the term. "MOJO is a commonplace part of the rhetoric of the culture of a substantial portion of the American people. As a figure of speech, the concept of having, or not having, one's MOJO working is not something in which any one person could assert originality, or establish a proprietary right." In short, Stratchborneo lost. 
Waiting for the royalties. Preserving Preston Foster's claim to copyright has been worth the effort. According to a recent interview, Sol Rabinowitz claims the song still earns $20,000 to $30,000 a year. "Every six months I send Preston a check," Rabinowitz wrote at his website, "He's basically still making a living from this song." And thanks to copyright law, his Mojo will continue to be working for him for many years to come.