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Plagiarism: The Words and the Music

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It's always satisfying to see journalistic plagiarism outed. But when it comes to music, things can be more complicated.

Last week, Slate's media maven Jack Shafer, alerted by a reader tip, exposed Gerald Posner -- know-it-all, high-profile author, cable TV talking head and now-dismissed chief investigative reporter for Tina Brown's Daily Beast-- as a serial plagiarist by quoting passages he stole virtually word for word from the writings of others. Even better, Shafer went the extra mile to demolish Posner's excuse that the web made him do it -- "The core of my problem," Posner said, "was in shifting [from writing books]...to what I describe as the 'warp speed of the net'" -- by noting that countless journalists, Shafer himself included, have been operating plagiarism-free at this velocity for years.

No one had to pay damages to the writers whose copy Posner lifted. But Australian pop group Men At Work could lose a small fortune in royalties from their 1983 worldwide charttopper Down Under now that a Sydney court has ruled that they plagiarized a couple of bars in the flute solo from the 1934 song Kookaburra Sits In The Old Gum Tree. (American courts likely would not have been so quick to punish the Down Under writers for such a minor bit of borrowing.)

Music is in the air, and the greatest composers -- Bach to Dylan to hip-hop samplers -- have routinely taken melodic motifs wherever they can find them. There's no doubt that George Harrison's 1970 hit My Sweet Lord is a rip-off of the Ronald Mack song He's So Fine, a 1963 smash by the Chiffons. Plagiarism may be the highest form of flattery, but the song's owner settled for nearly $600,000, and most agree Harrison was far too honorable to have stolen the tune on purpose. On the other hand, the Beach Boys' Surfin' U.S.A. -- also from 1963 (year of the plagiarism plague?) -- is way too close to Chuck Berry's 1958 Sweet Little Sixteen to have been unconscious, and Berry won the right to claim songwriting credit.

Sometimes greedy executives get in the plagiarism game. In the mid-'70s, Roulette Records president Morris Levy -- not Chuck Berry -- sued John Lennon for ripping off a Berry guitar riff on Come Together. A decade later, Fantasy Records owner Saul Zaentz did Levy one better when he sued -- ultimately unsuccessfully -- ex-Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty -- who'd left that iconic group to pursue a solo career on another label -- for $140 million, claiming Fogerty had plagiarized himself!

The late composer/orchestra leader Percy Faith (his recording of Theme from a Summer Place was the defining tune of 1960) was known for plucking already existing tunes out of the ether to create pop songs. He and my dad, Carl Sigman, wrote the 1951 Guy Mitchell hit My Heart Cries for You in 10 minutes on a bet after hearing the basic tune -- a French folk melody -- on the PA system at "the trotters." (Unable to get Sinatra to record the song, Columbia Records super-producer "Sing Along With Mitch" Miller tapped a young demo singer named Al Cernick. But that name wouldn't do. So Mitch substituted his own first name for "Cernick" and, given Al's gender, Mitch gave him the first name "Guy.")

That French folk tune was in the public domain, so all was legal. But a few years later, the same pair collaborated on The Secret of Happiness, which was recorded by Dinah Shore, who sang it on her weekly variety show. Just before the record was released, it was yanked when a Columbia Records exec felt the tune was too close to Charlie Chaplin's Smile.

(See here for analysis of the spectrum from blatant stealing -- in writing and music -- to subconscious regurgitation; and here for detailed stories of pop music plagiarism brouhahas.)

The closest I ever came to getting plagiarized -- besides having my 12th grade economics papers copied by the creep sitting next to me -- occurred around 15 years ago, when I was publisher of LA Weekly. Thumbing through a copy of our competitor the LA Reader, I was astonished to see my name signed to a letter to the editor I hadn't written. Seemed I'd pissed off a talented Weekly writer who'd cleverly turned what might well have been my words into a dumb, insensitive message.

That's not plagiarism, of course, but its reverse, and a very closely related and effective political strategy -- reframing what your opponent has said so it becomes horribly unpalatable.

Sarah Palin/"Death Panels" anyone?