High court backs Bette Midler
Article from:Chicago Sun-Times Article date:March 23, 1992
WASHINGTON The Supreme Court today let stand a $400,000 award Bette Midler won against an advertising agency that used a “sound-alike” singer for a television commercial five years ago.
The justices, without comment, rejected arguments by the ad agency Young & Rubicam that the award – based on a “misappropriation of voice” – should have been pre-empted by federal copyright law.
A federal jury in Los Angeles, applying California tort law, awarded Midler the $400,000 in 1988 after finding that Midler’s exclusive right to her vocal style had been violated.
Young & Rubicam originally had asked Midler, an actress and Grammy-winning singer, to perform her version of the song “Do You Wanna Dance?” for a Ford Motor Co. commercial aired in 1986. After she turned down the offer, the ad company asked Ula Hedwig, who once worked as a backup singer for Midler, to mimic Midler’s voice in the commercial.
The ad company acknowledged that it intended to imitate Midler’s rendition of the song as recorded in her album “The Divine Miss M.”
Midler’s lawsuit, initially dismissed, led to a significant federal appeals court ruling that “when a distinctive voice of a professional singer is widely known and deliberately imitated in order to sell a product, the sellers have appropriated what is not theirs and have committed a tort in California.”
In the appeal acted on today, lawyers for Young & Rubicam argued that such practices are allowed by federal copyright law.
Midler’s suit had sought $2.5 million from the ad company. She also sued Ford for $10 million, but that lawsuit was thrown out.
Lower courts also ruled that Midler was not entitled to collect punitive damages, sparking a cross-appeal filed with the justices in her behalf.
Today, the court rejected the cross-appeal also.