Recently, a California jury decided that Led Zeppelin did not steal a section of the song “Taurus” by the 1960’s rock group Spirit. It was a pretty high profile case, the apex being perhaps Jimmy Page’s testimony that “Stairway” used the same basic musical building blocks as many other songs, including “Chim Chim Cheree.” But there have been many other times when a song or its misappropriation became the center of an interesting dispute:
“BORN IN THE USA” by BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN vs. THE REAGAN RE-ELECTION CAMPAIGN: Bruce Springsteen wouldn’t let Ronald Reagan use “Born in the USA” as part of his re-election campaign, but that didn’t stop Reagan from name-dropping the Boss in a stump speech: “America’s future rests in a thousand dreams inside our hearts. It rests in the message of hope in the songs of a man so many young Americans admire: New Jersey’s own Bruce Springsteen.” A couple of days later, as Bruce was getting ready to play “Johnny 99,” a song about an unemployed autoworker standing trial for murder, he prefaced it with a spoken intro: “The President was mentioning my name the other day, and I kinda got to wondering what his favorite album musta been. I don’t think it was the Nebraska album.”
Winner: “Born in the USA.” Up until this point, it was easy enough on first hearing to focus simply on the anthemic quality of the chorus, but a closer examination of the verses made many listeners come to terms with their own understanding of patriotism. Besides, really: Do you think Reagan owned any Springsteen albums?
“THE OLD MAN DOWN THE ROAD” by JOHN FOGERTY vs. FANTASY RECORDS: John Fogerty, lead singer/songwriter/guitarist for the hugely successful hit-making machine Creedence Clearwater Revival, did not part on good terms with Fantasy Records, CCR’s old record label. After a hiatus from the music biz, Fogerty returned on a different label as a solo act, releasing 1985’s Centerfield, and its successful Top 10 single, “The Old Man Down the Road.” Fantasy Records promptly took Fogerty to court, claiming he had stolen parts of “Run Through the Jungle,” a song he had written and released during his Creedence Clearwater Revival days. Fogerty took his guitar to court and explained the process of songwriting, essentially convincing the jury that two songs by the same writer might be stylistically similar, of course, but it didn’t necessarily constitute copyright infringement.
Winner: “The Old Man Down the Road.” But the battle didn’t end here: Subsequently, Fantasy Records didn’t want to pay John Fogerty’s legal fees, and lower courts agreed. But Fogerty said this showed copyright law’s inherent bias against artists. He took his case all the way to the Supreme Court and won a unanimous 9-0 decision in his favor, thereby making the playing field more even for anyone else involved in future contract disputes. Give Fogerty the credit for the double KO here.
“LOUIE LOUIE” by THE KINGSMEN vs. the FEDERAL BUREAU OF INVESTIGATION: Sure, it’s an old case – but it’s still funny. In the early 1960s, the Kingsmen, a semi-pro teenage dance combo from the Pacific Northwest, booked time in a local recording studio to do a cover version of “Louie Louie,” an R&B-flavored dance number originally written and performed by Richard Berry. The Kingman’s version, under-rehearsed and under-produced, should have been fodder for the cut-out record bin, but the FBI started receiving complaints that the lyrics, hard as they were to understand, were somehow “dirty.”
Sensing an opportunity to save the youth of America from lyrics of questionable moral value, the Bureau launched an investigation, hoping to charge someone with transporting audio pornography over states lines or something like that. They played the single at 45 RPM as well at 33 RPM, and even transcribed a few versions of what they thought they maybe sorta could’ve might’ve heard, but legend has it that in the end, the lyrics were deemed “unintelligible at any speed.”
Winner: “Louie Louie.” It turns out that whenever the investigation received another complaint or renewed itself otherwise, the record sold another million copies. To this day, “Louie Louie” has been covered extensively, and still most people aren’t quite sure what it’s all about. “Ooh baby, me gotta go!”