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I Fought the Law: Of Songs and Lawsuits

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Some say imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,  while others in the music industry call it “plagiarism.” Laws must be set in place to protect the creative properties of musicians, but sometimes artists (or their business managers) take lawsuits to a whole other level – even children’s show dinosaur Barney was sued over the “I Love You” song. Since there are only seven notes in the ever-popular diatonic scale and only so many rhyming lyrics in the English language, there’s bound to be some overlap in the billions of songs created. Bands like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin are as famous for their own songs as they are for “reinventing” songs by lesser known artists, speeding up the tempo, adding some rock n’ roll flare and climbing to the top of the charts, leaving the original artists in the dust. Some bands may actually just be victims of the idea that “great minds think/sing alike” – Coldplay drummer Will Champion denied Yusuf Islam’s (formerly Cat Stevens) claim that Coldplay’s 2008 “Viva La Vida” copied melodies from his 1973 song "Foreigner Suite,” saying “It’s tough when people accuse you of stealing something when you know that you didn’t. We accept that it’s part of the territory…There are elements of our music that I’ve heard in other people’s music, but it’s a very difficult thing to define. I think it [plagiarism] lies on an intent to steal, which we certainly have never done and never would.” While countless songs sound similar, whether intended or not, it’s mainly the moneymakers that result in lawsuits like these: Lady Gaga, “Judas” (2011) vs. Rebecca Francescatti, “Juda” (1999) Lady Gaga's "Judas here Rebecca Francescatti's "Juda" here The titles are perhaps the closest resemblance these songs have to one another. But Chicago-based singer-songwriter Rebecca Francescatti sued Lady Gaga last year, claiming that the rhythm and melody of “Judas” was lifted from her song “Juda,” which she first recorded with her band Rebecca F. & the Memes in 1999. Upon first listen, Gaga’s upbeat dance number seems to have nothing to do with Francescatti's 90s sound. But upon closer inspection, some similarities can be heard, which is suspicious considering Francescatti's former bass player Brian Gaynor worked on Lady Gaga’s Born This Way. Francescatti's attorney Christopher Niro told NBC that he didn’t expect quick money out of the lawsuit, but at least it brought attention to the issue (and a little of Gaga’s fame to the otherwise unknown musician): "These lawsuits are not resolved quickly, but it's a way for artists like my client to knock on the doors of the high and mighty." The Verve, “Bittersweet Symphony” (1997) vs. The Rolling Stones, “The Last Time” (1965) The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony" Rolling Stones' "The Last Time" Also be sure to listen: Andrew Oldham Orchestra Performing "The Last Time" The Staples Singers Everyone has heard The Verve’s 1997 hit “Bittersweet Symphony.” But few modern listeners are familiar with The Rolling Stones’ 1965 tune “The Last Time” – and fewer know The Andrew Oldham Orchestra recording of the song. But they’ll recognize the sweeping strings of the melody instantly – The Verve sampled it in their song. And even though the band obtained a license to use it, former Stones manager Allen Klein sued The Verve, arguing that they used more than the license covered. And in a domino effect of lawsuits, this led Andrew Oldham to also sue the band, who had to relinquish all royalties and change the songwriting credit to Jagger/Richards. The best part of this unfortunate money-grubbing ordeal? The Stones themselves styled their song from The Staples Singers’ version of the 1955 traditional Gospel song “This May Be the Last Time.” The Beatles, “Come Together” (1969) vs. Chuck Berry, “You Can’t Catch Me” (1956) The Beatles' "Come Together" Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" Lennon’s cover of “You Can’t Catch Me”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XBTX___KJSs If I asked you where the lyrics “Here come old flattop / He come groovin’ up slowly” came from, you might reply “The Beatles, duh.” But don’t be so quick to jump the gun, Mother Superior…John Lennon was sued in 1969 for stealing the guitar riff and the line from Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me." Like The Rolling Stones’ case, it was not the band but a man on the business side who sued – industry exec Morris Levy, who owned the song, along with many other early rock songs from poor, black, underrepresented artists. In an attempt to avoid the courtroom limelight that was following him at the time, Lennon settled with Levy. Levy dropped the lawsuit in exchange for Lennon actually covering the Chuck Berry song in full, along with other songs Levy owned, to increase their value with a Beatle singing them. The producer of Lennon’s “Rock ‘n’ Roll” cover album, Phil Spector, ran away with the first session tapes, so Lennon ended up finishing it on his own.

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