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ZZ top’s latest lawsuit seems to have ’em.
Forget about “Here Comes the Judge.” Hands down, the song most frequently heard in courtrooms these days has to be ZZ Top’s “La Grange.” On three occasions in the past five years, the 1973 hit single by the hirsute Houston rockers has been at the center of a copyright infringement case. In the first, Bernard Besmen alleged that “La Grange” contains a bass line lifted from “Boogie Chillen,” the 1948 John Lee Hooker classic that he co-wrote. When the suit was dismissed, Besmen filed an appeal, at which time, according to longtime ZZ lawyer Joseph D. Schleimer, “there was a confidential settlement to make the thing go away.” In the second case, it was ZZ doing the suing. The defendant was the Japanese automaker Mitsubishi, which the band claimed used a knockoff of “La Grange” in a TV ad. Rather than go to court, Mitsubishi settled; Schleimer says the terms were “highly confidential” at the company’s request.
The third case—quietly filed last July, though word of its existence didn’t leak until many months later—involves another automaker, and again ZZ Top is the plaintiff. In January 1996 Chrysler Corporation (these days, newly merged DaimlerChrysler) unveiled the Plymouth Prowler at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit. As chairman of the board Robert Eaton and president Robert Lutz drove up in the sporty hot rod, “La Grange” was blaring. Yet no consent had been granted for use of the song, which became a problem when (1) CNN aired a clip of the rollout with the music clearly audible in the background and (2) a promotional videotape of the event was distributed to Chrysler dealers worldwide. Jay Cooney, Chrysler’s litigation communications manager, says the company that produced the video, Seattle’s BTC Films, is to blame. “It’s the supplier’s responsibility to secure permission,” he maintains. “It’s expected and it’s assumed. We’ve never, ever had a problem before.” Isn’t Chrysler—or any business—accountable for the actions of a firm that does work on its behalf? “I don’t know,” he says. “It was an innocent mistake.”
“It was no mistake, and there was nothing innocent about it,” counters Schleimer, who says he has documents that show BTC originally proposed that the spot be set to symphonic music but that Chrysler executives changed it to ZZ Top. “They knew exactly what they were doing.” He adds that Eaton and Lutz wore sunglasses—a ZZ signature—as they preened in the Prowler, and early plans, subsequently changed, had them wearing leather jackets as well—another ZZ signature. What, no beards?
In its suit ZZ is asking Chrysler for $15 million in damages (BTC isn’t named as a co-defendant because it has gone out of business). Liability notwithstanding, Cooney thinks that amount is way too high. “It’s disappointing that ZZ Top thinks they’re holding the winning ticket in the litigation lottery,” he says. “If we used the song without permission, they ought to be paid a reasonable fee. What they’re asking for isn’t reasonable. It’s $5 million a minute.” Schleimer, however, insists $15 million is just right: Past licensing deals the band made with Miller Lite and Honda, he says, were “in that area.”
Barring a settlement, ZZ Top v. Chrysler Corporation goes to trial in August.