Music professor, rock historian, and guitarist John Covach has suggested that tribute bands may play an important role in the future of rock music, keeping up a live performance tradition long after the original acts are gone, much as a symphony orchestra keeps the classical repertoire alive. If so, a newly filed case reported on in yesterday’s New York Times, pitting two of the most polished and theatrical Beatles tribute acts–“Rain” and “Let it Be”– may bear watching.
The Times quotes the attorney for the defendant “Let in Be”:
“How do you monopolize the ability to present an impersonation of the Beatles?” Mr. Cane said. “How many different ways can you really do it? The Beatles acted a certain way, they played certain notes, they spoke a certain way.”
That’s all true, but the Complaint in the case makes it clear that the claim is based on copyrighted elements of the “Rain” act, which had a long run on Broadway, that are not necessarily part of the Beatles scènes à faire:
including the dialog used between musical numbers, the dialog used to encourage audience members to dance, the order of the songs, the musical cues, the placement of transitions, and the show’s blocking, all of which is reflected in Rain Corp.’s copyrighted book for Rain- A Tribute.
It is also apparent from the Complaint that the two acts are not strangers to each other, but in fact had a longstanding relationship giving rise to breach of contract as well as copyright claims. The copyright count, I think, may rise or fall on the threshold issue of originality. I have no idea how original the elements claimed by “Rain” are; “Hey Philadelphia, do you feel all right?” won’t be enough.