Woody Guthrie’s 1961 song I am the way as adapted by Loudon Wainwright III in 1973 was based on a central idea of Jesus travelling around attracting bad luck by saying “I am the way” to anyone who would listen to him.
Who: Robbie Williams and Ludlow Music
When: October 2000
Where: Chancery Division, London High Court
Woody Guthrie’s 1961 song "I am the way" as adapted by Loudon Wainwright III in 1973 was based on a central idea of Jesus travelling around attracting bad luck by saying "I am the way" to anyone who would listen to him. Robbie Williams liked the idea so much he used elements of the song in "Jesus in a camper van", a track on his 2.4million selling second album. Wanting to do the right thing, he also approached "I am the way"’s rights controllers Ludlow, pre release, to do a deal, but talks broke down after Ludlow demanded a half share. EMI went ahead and released the Williams album anyway and having wrongly stated on the album that the lyrics had been reproduced "by kind permission" of Ludlow, defended when Ludlow sued for breach of copyright and demanded all income derived from the Williams song. EMI said Robbie hadn’t taken enough of the song to infringe its copyright. In quantity terms the judge assessed the proportion taken as about a quarter of the total lyric, but in terms of the quality of what was taken, this was substantial, he said, though "not by much." This was because the central, distinctive theme of "I am the way" had been taken and embodied in virtually identical words. The damages, which the judge felt should be substantial and even exemplary in view of the decision to go ahead with release despite the negotiations breaking down, are to be assessed later.
Why this matters:
Music copyright infringement is a notoriously difficult area. The test of what is a "substantial" copy is a quality test and therefore often difficult to call without expert advice. The other clear message from this case is that once an approach is made for consent, it is a high risk strategy to proceed regardless if that consent is not forthcoming.