How Chuck Berry Became a Beach Boy (and other copyright infringement cases)

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A copyright is supposed to protect a creator's intellectual property and ensure that the copyright holder's work isn't nefariously misappropriated. However, they don't always work so well; just ask anyone who has fond memories of Napster circa 2000. Not all copyright battles are Metallica-initiated, though. Take, for example, these three instances of infringement.

Those Freeloading Girl Scouts

When you own the copyright for a song or other original work, you don't just have the exclusive right to record it and create other tangible reproductions. You also own the sole rights to broadcast or perform the song in public. Technically, then, any band or group performing a cover version of one of your songs owes you royalties, as does any hold music an office might play over its phones, which counts as a broadcast.

Since it would be logistically impossible for each band or composer to collect its own royalties from these performances, intermediaries known as performance rights organizations exist. These organizations, the largest two of which in the U.S. are the non-profits BMI and ASCAP, manage huge portfolios of songs, collect royalties from music venues, bars, restaurants, and other places live covers or recorded music are played, and then reimburse the copyright holders.

This system's interesting, to be sure, but what does it have to do with the Girl Scouts? In 1995, ASCAP decided that summer camps were getting away with publicly performing copyrighted campfire songs without paying any licensing royalties. From a legal standpoint, ASCAP was within its rights, but its request that even large non-profit camp directors pay annual fees of as much as $1400 or face six-figure fines or a year in prison didn't sit well with the public. Girl Scout camps were hit particularly hard, and TV reports and a major story in the Wall Street Journal recounted tales of young lasses having to learn the Macarena in silence.

Public opinion swayed against ASCAP as further tales recounted birthdays passing with no singing of "Happy Birthday" lest a camp director be forced to spend hard time, and the copyright holders eventually relented. ASCAP now charges the Girl Scouts $1 a year to license its portfolio, a symbolic compromise that reasserts the group's ability to demand these kind of fees.

Apple Gets Less Creative

In June 2007, the beloved Apple Computers had a copyright tiff of its own. Photographer Louis Psihoyos claimed that the tech giant, which has been praised for its creative and clever advertising, ripped off his image of a wall of video screens in a spot for Apple TV. The two images were uncomfortably similar: Psihoyos' depicted a seated figure surrounded by a wall of videos, whereas Apple's was pretty much the same save that it didn't include the figure. Worse still for Apple, Psihoyos' lawyer claimed that Apple had been in negotiations to license the image, then reneged on the potential deal and used the image anyway.

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Psihoyos filed suit against Apple in U.S. District Court, but in December he reversed field and withdrew the action. However, the suit was dropped with prejudice, meaning that the artist could still receive a settlement.

When Chuck Berry Became a Beach Boy

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If you think wholesale pilfering of songs began when Vanilla Ice swiped the bass line from David Bowie and Queen's song "Under Pressure" for "Ice, Ice Baby," think again. Far more revered artists have given in to the temptation to lift more than a chord or two. Take, for instance, the Beach Boys' classic anthem "Surfin' USA." The 1963 hit single listed Beach Boy Brian Wilson as the sole composer of the track, but the melody was a complete replication of Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen." You can judge for yourself:

When Chuck Berry accused Brian Wilson of bogarting his melody, the Beach Boys' manager, Wilson's father Murray, gave Berry the copyright to the tune. He didn't tell the members of the band, however, who supposedly only learned 25 years later that they weren't getting royalties from this song and that Berry now receives credit for writing it. Berry, for his part, supposedly enjoyed "Surfin' USA."

Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.

June 4, 2008 - 5:02am
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