Carl Horowitz

"Talent borrows. Genius Steals." -- Oscar Wilde

For the past month, better radio stations around the country have been giving airplay to the new Bruce Springsteen single, "Radio Nowhere." A tight, expansive furious rocker, the track also appears on his just-released CD, "Magic," maybe his best since 1987's "Tunnel of Love." Though I've always found the man's ongoing promotion of left-populist agitprop more than a little irritating, I give credit where due: It's a great record.

But hanging over this, at least for a while, was a potential legal matter. A portion of the single sounds similar to Tommy Tutone's 1982 hit, "867-5309/Jenny." That hadn't escaped the notice of the still-active Northern California band's lead singer, Tommy Heath, who owns 12 percent of the song's publishing rights. "Everybody's calling me about it," he said several weeks ago. "I think it's close enough that if I wanted to, I could work with it. I don't really get into that sort of thing, but the kids do need braces so maybe I will."

Fortunately, he didn't. Heath's comment rocketed around the Internet, prompting Springsteen fans to ask: Where does this one-hit wonder get off jump-starting his career like this? And why would Springsteen have a need to copy anyone? By late September, Heath reversed himself. "I'm really honored at a similarity, if any," he remarked. "I think there's too much suing in the world now, and I'm writing Bruce's manager (Jon Landau) now a letter to assure him that I'm not taking any action."

Well, thank God for the Internet and Heath's attack of good sense. But had a suit been filed, it might have succeeded, or at the very least, saddled Springsteen with needless aggravation and legal expenses. Such a possibility suggests that the courts have been excessively creative in interpreting copyright infringement law.

Objectively, there wouldn't have been much of a case. It's true that the main melody of the two songs share an Em-C-G-D chord sequence. But so do Bon Jovi's "Misunderstood" and any number of other songs. What's more, the counter-melody and the bridge in Springsteen's song bear no resemblance to those of "867-5309." And the lyrics are utterly different both in content and context.

Carl Horowitz

Carl F. Horowitz is director of the Organized Labor Accountability Project of the National Legal and Policy Center, a Gold Partner organization dedicated to promoting ethics in American public life.
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