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Takeaways from the Bill Murray-Doobie Brothers copyright dispute

On Behalf of | Oct 22, 2020 | Intellectual Property |

Anyone who was alive in the early 1970s will recognize the Doobie Brothers’ hit from that era, “Listen to the Music.” The late, great Dick Clark famously said, “Music is the soundtrack of our lives” and Doobie Brothers’ songs are part of that soundtrack for baby boomers, who may wince when they recognize songs from their personal soundtracks used commercially to promote products.

But, the reason for an ad is to get people’s attention – and this approach does that, especially when the song used is a megahit. It is not surprising that iconic actor Bill Murray chose to use “Listen to the Music” as the soundtrack to a commercial for his Zero Hucks Given polo shirts, part of his colorful golf clothing line sold by his company, William Murray Golf.

Unauthorized use of another’s musical work

There is just one problem – Murray allegedly failed to negotiate a license to pay for permission to use the song to which the Doobie Brothers have a federally registered copyright. Copyright gives the owner the right to exclusive use of the copyrighted creative work, including the right to sell licenses to other parties to use the work.

According to Sportico, the band via its lawyer sent a letter to Murray’s company pointing out the misuse of the song. It is widely reported in the media that the missive was casual and used humor to point out the potentially infringing activity.

Murray’s attorney responded on Twitter with a letter thanking the Doobie Brother’s lawyer for “Takin’ It to the Streets” (another Doobie’s song) instead of to the court. Sportico reports further that Murray’s lawyer offered to give the band golf shirts since Murray’s use of their song did not harm them.

Copyright infringement

Murray’s assertion that his unauthorized use of the song did not hurt the copyright owners is questionable. Copyright exists to preserve the owner’s interests in controlling their own creative work. When someone else uses the work in their own commercial endeavors without the right to do so, it deprives the copyright owner of the financial gain that a license would bring. In addition, the owner may not have wanted to see the work used in the way the infringer did and that infringement could dilute the impact of other uses the owner had planned.


The band may eventually file a federal copyright infringement lawsuit, which could result in an award of money damages and reimbursement of legal fees since the copyright is registered. However, they may save time and money if they can negotiate a license with Murray or agree on a money figure to compensate them for Murray’s allegedly infringing behavior in the past plus an agreement to stop.

This situation is unique in that the request for Murray to stop using the copyrighted material and the response were both done with humor instead of strict legal formalities. This may set the stage for flexibility and openness in negotiation.

Anyone with a creative work fixed in a tangible means of expression has an automatic copyright, but legal counsel can explain the benefits of federal copyright registration and assist with that process. If someone uses your copyrighted work without your permission, an attorney can explain your legal options, depending on your goals.

On the other hand, should you want to use someone’s creative work, a lawyer can explain how to legally do that such as by negotiating a license. If someone accuses you of infringement, speak with counsel about your choices for responding.


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