Comment of the Day: “The Beatles And Plagiarism”

Then there are Golden Rule considerations...

Then there are Golden Rule considerations…

There were many outstanding comments today, but I have a soft spot in my heart for any comment that completes a post that I decided to shorten by raising the issue I omitted for length. Thus johnburger2013 gets another Comment of the Day nod for his musings on the elusive lines between homage, inspirations, quotes and plagiarism in music.

The three examples discussed in my post are not close calls, I’d insist: my friend, actor/lawyer/ classic rock maven David Elias informs me that John Lennon actually confessed that he had plagiarized the Chuck Berry song, and his was the least egregious steal of the three. Other instances, however, are not so clear cut: If he hadn’t sung all of them, a case could be made that every Gary Puckett song was plagiarized from every other one. (The same, in fact, has been said of Chuck Berry.)

In researching the Beatles story, I found an entertaining site called Sounds Just Like which explores johnb’s “line.” Most are a stretch: No, I don’t think John Williams ripped off Darth Vader’s theme from Mary Poppins’ “A Spoonful of Sugar.” But I do know that Arthur Sullivan was imitating Mendelssohn big time in “Iolanthe,” and that recognizable musical quotes are important tools of the trade that should not be strangled by overzealous copyright prosecutions.

Here is johnburger2013’s Comment of the Day on the post, The Beatles And Plagiarism:

That is a conundrum for a musician. Ask any guitarist, bassist, drummer, etc., who their respective influences are you will find that they borrowed heavily from them. The Beatles always cited Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Buddy Holly as their musical sources (Keith Richards from the Rolling Stones, as stated the same). Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page borrowed heavily from Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, and Scotty Moore (Elvis Presley), and those influences are all over their recordings. Alex Lifeson (Rush) has acknowledged Jimmy Page as a major influence and it is obvious in Rush’s early recordings. In fact, Rush settled with Estate of Raymond Scott for using part of Scott’s song “Powerhouse” in their instrumental “La Villa Strangiato”, even though a court ruled in Rush’s favor. Mike Portnoy cites John Bonham as an influence and you hear specific phrasings in his early work. This is not isolated to popf music. Classical and jazz musicians do it as well. Ask Carlos Santana who his influences are he will cite Coltrain.

At what point does influence become outright copying? Where is the line between plagiarism and fair use under copyright law? Queen sued Vanilla Ice for copyright infringement when Ice comped Queen’s main riff from “Under Pressure” and Ice won because he altered the beat just enough for a court to rule that it was an independent work of music. Other artists have borrowed or referenced other musicians’ work in their won songs/music (a lyric, a theme, etc.). So, I am not surprised that the Beatles used a Chuck Berry riff in one of their songs (by the way, I have always hated “Come Together” – the refrain seemed idiotic and self-contradictory, and the song itself is boring. “I am the Walrus” was more inventive). I am not advocating copyright infringement; rather, I am trying to figure out where that line is. Is it always infringement? Could be an homage? I am not sure.



9 thoughts on “Comment of the Day: “The Beatles And Plagiarism”

  1. I wish blog posts had a “Like” thingy like Facebook. Sometimes I just want to acknowledge that I like a comment, especially when I have nothing useful, wise, humorous, or clever to say. Anyway, good comment, johnburger2013.

  2. Real torture for me was doing KP when in boot camp and listening to “Come Together” again and again in the kitchen when washing dishes or cleaning the grease trap. The cooks would always have the radio on tuned to some pop station which played a set list of 10 songs. The Chuck Berry song would have actually made me happy because it was bouncy and cleverly written.

  3. The suit I always found amusing was when the copyright holders of Running through the Jungle sued the writer of it John Fogarty for copyright infringement over his song Old Man Down the Road.

  4. The boundary between “copying” and “referencing” music keeps intellectual property lawyers in business and gives judges headaches. Music is something of a closed logic system where musical phrases can be the same in different compositions and the composers don’t know each other. It’s easier to detect plagiarism in literature — words come in seemingly limitless combinations. Seeing the exact same conbinations in supposedly different works suggests that the second writer stole from the first.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.