Defending the plagiarists

Some of your favorite songs were ripped off from other artists. Here's why it's still OK to like them.

May 3, 2012

It may surprise you to know that occationally, rock stars aren’t the pillars of good behavior we expect them to be, and sometimes their bad behavior extends to the creative realm. Several high-profile musicians have been accused of -- and successfully sued over -- allegations of plagiarism or copyright infringement when it turned out the hits they wrote weren’t exactly the hits they wrote.

But writing new songs is hard. Here, I’m going to cut some slack on a few of the world’s most famous copycats. I'll even attempt to argue how the “new” song improved upon the old.*

THE CULPRIT: George Harrison’s 1970 hit, “My Sweet Lord.” In 1976, a U.S. District Court decided that Harrison “subconsciously copied” the Chiffons' 1963 hit  “He's So Fine.” Subsequently Harrison had to pay a hefty fine.

MAKING THE CASE FOR WHY “MY SWEET LORD” IS THE BETTER SONG: There are precious few pop songs that make religion sound pretty cool (see: Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”) and Harrison’s ode to the Hindu god Krishna is one of them. With beautiful backup harmonies (supplied by Harrison himself) and sweet slide guitar, “My Sweet Lord” is a lusher, deeper take on the original tune. Plus, as the hit single from Harrison’s first post-Beatles solo effort, All Things Must Pass, an album so full of breakup catharsis that it spanned three records, you sort of just want to root for the guy.

THE CULPRIT: Ray Parker’s hit theme for the 1984 movie Ghostbusters. Parker was sued by Huey Lewis for plagiarising his hit “I Want a New Drug” from the same year. The two settled out of court. 

MAKING THE CASE: “I Want a New Drug” is a fine song, yes, but Huey Lewis and the News enjoyed plenty of hits in their time. Ray Parker, Jr.? Well, take away the Ghostbusters theme and which of his hit songs can you name most easily? Not to mention that without the Ghostbusters theme, we’d only have two Halloween songs to listen to each year (“Monster Mash” and “Thriller”). Plus, have you ever been at a wedding or a dance when the Ghostbusters theme unexpectedly got thrown on? Instant party-improver. While both songs might be equally good, if only one had to exist, you know you would go with the Ghostbusters theme song.

THE CULPRIT: Vanilla Ice sampled Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” for his 1990 smash “Ice Ice Baby” without credit or permission. Vanilla Ice (Robert Van Winkle) subsequently paid Queen and Bowie, and as a result, all members of Queen and Bowie have since been given songwriting credit for the sample.

MAKING THE CASE: Okay, this is a tough one, but bear with me. There is no question that as musicians and probably as human beings, the world wants, nay, needs, David Bowie and Queen more than Van Winkle. However, when you imagine all the amazing songs Queen and Bowie have given the world, how high, exactly, does "Under Pressure" rank? Would it have made any sort of splash if it was written by somebody else? Like it or not, as the first hip hop single to top the Billboard charts, “Ice Ice Baby” made history and, on a more superficial level, still receives a warm, nostalgic welcome when it’s played. The song, the video, the way the song helped bring hip hop to a mainstream audience; you could say that “Ice Ice Baby” is more of a cultural touchstone than "Under Pressure." This is not to say at all that Ice is better than Bowie/Queen, but if you were out on the dance floor at a wedding or in your car, you know, secretly, which song you'd rather hear. Regardless, now that Queen and Bowie are credited as songwriters on “Ice Ice Baby,” you can enjoy the song without the same level of guilt.

THE CULPRIT: Avril Lavigne was sued in 2007 by songwriters for the band The Rubinoos, who claimed that her that her single "Girlfriend" infringed their copyright on their 1979 song "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend." A confidential settlement was later reached.

MAKING THE CASE:
There’s only one key portion of Avril Lavigne’s “Girlfriend” that sounds very much like the Rubinoo’s “I Want to Be Your Boyfriend,” and you could go insane arguing whether Lavigne truly ripped off the ‘70s-‘80s band or whether one can really claim that a “Hey/hey! You/you!” call and response in re: a significant other is really something an artist can lay claim to. While the phrases do sound similar, the Rubinoos’ buried that portion of their song in their chorus whereas Lavigne made it her hook; meanwhile, nothing else about the songs sound alike. While it’s difficult to defend Lavigne just because she (like the song) can come off as bratty, “Girlfriend” took advantage of a catchy hook better than the Rubinoos did, whereas the similarities stop and end at “girlfriend/boyfriend.”

THE CULPRIT: In the early 1970s, Johnny Cash paid Gordon Jenkins a settlement of approximately $75,000 for “borrowing” liberally from Jenkins’ 1953 song "Crescent City Blues” for Cash’s 1955 hit “Folsom Prison Blues.”

MAKING THE CASE: This may be the most blatant case of rip-offery in famous music plagiarism (sampling aside) and hence is hard to defend. Johnny Cash practically copied Jenkins’ song in its entirety, and, to add insult to injury, a scene involving Cash “writing” the song appeared in the biopic Walk the Line. Cash was lucky in this case that he was Johnny Cash and the song he wrote was “Folsom County Blues,” a badass recording from a badass man, because if it were any other guy or any other song, he’d rightfully be known as a ripoff punk.

*Of course, this is all tongue in cheek. Having been plagiarized myself, I can say for certain than stealing people’s work is, yes, wrong.

 

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