The One Where They Needed a Copyright Attorney: An Analysis of Copyright Protections and Smelly Cat

July 1, 2021 – It’s been over twenty-five years since the hit television show Friends premiered. Last month, HBO released a reunion special, and Friends fans everywhere tuned in to reminisce on their favorite moments with the original cast of the show.

Friends follows the lives of six friends in their twenties and thirties living in New York City. The series is one of the most popular television shows of all time, lasting ten seasons and receiving over sixty Emmy nominations. The comical and quirky cast of characters created countless memorable moments and one-liners. Perhaps the most notable “work of art” to come from Friends, however, is the hit song Smelly Cat written by Phoebe Buffay.

Phoebe, played by Lisa Kudrow, serves as the show’s comic relief with her eccentric sense of style and songwriting. Phoebe wrote Smelly Cat as a tribute to a cat she owned during her childhood, which was, as you’d expect, very smelly. The song became a cultural phenomenon and has been covered by a number of artists, including Taylor Swift and Lady Gaga.

On the show, the short song was Phoebe’s most memorable work, and in one episode, it even earned Phoebe a recording contract. Smelly Cat was nothing short of purrfect, but Phoebe’s rights to the song were not adequately protected under Copyright law. And ultimately, Smelly Cat was stolen by Phoebe’s ex-partner who used it as a jingle in a kitty litter commercial. I can’t help but wonder where Smelly Cat would be today if Phoebe had just a little help from a copyright attorney.

Copyright protection gives the owner of a copyright in a musical composition the exclusive right to make copies, prepare derivate works, sell or distribute copies, and perform or display the work publicly. Even so, to enforce these rights and collect damages, the author must register the work with the United States Copyright Office.

When it comes to Smelly Cat, the Federal Copyright Act provides copyright protection for musical works only once they are fixed in some tangible medium of expression. In other words, for Phoebe to copyright Smelly Cat, she needed to do more than merely perform the piece at Central Perk. Phoebe could either: (1) write the piece down, including the music and lyrics, as a musical composition, or (2) record herself singing the song. These two don’t always provide the same degree of protection, so it’s best to consult counsel before filing for a registered copyright.

Interestingly, a new work is afforded copyright protection as soon as it is created and fixed in a tangible medium. Even so, registering your work with the United States Copyright Office provides an extra layer of protection and benefits. If Smelly Cat had a registered copyright, Phoebe could have stopped it from being used without her permission and recovered monetary damages for its use in the kitty litter commercial, including lost profits and royalties or statutory damages of up to $150,000.

If you’ve created a brilliant song, or other work of art, stop kitten yourself and consult a copyright attorney right meow.


Mary Grace Rahm is an attorney in Clark Partington’s Destin office, specializing in civil litigation, land use, and intellectual property. She routinely helps clients obtain copyright and trademark registrations and has successfully litigated both copyright and trademark matters in federal court. Despite being a dog person, Mary Grace has one cat who, thankfully, is not smelly. Mary Grace can be reached at mrahm@clarkpartington.com or (850) 269-8843.

About Clark Partington:

Clark Partington is the largest business focused firm in the Florida panhandle with offices in Pensacola, Destin, Grayton Beach & Tallahassee.  The firm also maintains a presence in South Alabama with an Orange Beach office.  Since 1976 Clark Partington has grown to over forty lawyers and has served the people and businesses of Florida through an innovative and collaborative approach to practicing law.  Our lawyers are consistently recognized for their service to the profession and excellence in the courtroom.  More information about the firm’s practice, its attorneys, and recognitions may be found at www.clarkpartington.com.