05 May 2015

What Constitutes Theft in the Arts?

When I was in college, Lee Kahn, the school’s theater director, used to like to tell us, “The first rule of theater is theft.”  He said that so often that when I began to teach acting and theater myself, I passed his bit of wisdom on to my own students.  What Lee meant, of course, was that as theater artists (the rule didn’t apply just to actors), we should carefully watch other artists, especially the good and great ones (another actor’s admonition, though not one that Lee inculcated, is “Only steal from the best”), and take from them what we find useful and effective (or, maybe, just neat!)—a kind of surreptitious apprenticeship.  Painters do that, too, of course.  You can sometimes see young artists in museums copying the great masters to learn their techniques. 

When I was trying to teach myself how to write, I emulated the styles of writers I admired.  Of course, I didn’t really sound like myself when I did that consciously: I was a poor imitation of good writers, not a genuine writer myself.  I probably still do that—less consciously, I hope—but I think, at least to some extent, I’ve absorbed what I’ve picked up so that, as one of my acting teachers put it, my technique has simply become part of my way of working, no longer artificial and assumed, but an innate part of me.  It’s like the way someone takes on an affectation, a bit of artificially assumed manner—such as an accent with which he wasn’t born or a level of diction he never learned in school—until slowly it actually becomes part of his habitual make-up.  It’s not an affectation anymore, it’s just behavior. 

Musicians, songwriters, and composers follow a path not unlike actors and writers.  Somewhere there’s a line that demarcates emulation, tribute, or homage from outright theft—permanent “borrowing.”  Now, Milton Berle, always accused of recycling other comedians’ jokes, notwithstanding, however, I’ve never heard of an actor actually being accused of (much less charged with) plagiarism.  But writers (remember Doris Kearns Goodwin?) and composer-lyricists can fall prey to the P word and its often very hard to tell where “fair use” leaves off and misappropriation begins.  (I’ve worked for one editor who prohibits any but the most necessary quotations because his publishers won’t pay for them and he doesn’t want to cross the line into improper use.  I couldn’t even quote from the Hart Crane poem from which Tennessee Williams took his title Summer and Smoke, although I’ve always understood that in literary criticism, “fair use” meant writers could quote, with proper attribution, any pertinent statement.)  Sometimes, in a courtroom where the dividing line is under question, the search for it can be downright ludicrous. 

In the most recent prominent case of a charge of plagiarism, the family of Marvin Gaye, who died in 1984 (shot to death by his father), claimed in 2013 that songwriters Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams copied portions of Gaye’s 1977 pop hit “Got to Give It Up” in their release “Blurred Lines.”  The Gaye family sued Thicke, Pharrell, and rapper Clifford Joseph Harris, Jr. (known as T.I.) who’s featured on the song, for over $25 million in damages for copyright infringement.  On 10 March, the court ruled that Thicke and Pharrell, but not Harris, were guilty of improperly using parts of Gaye’s song and the judge ordered them to pay $7.4 million in damages. 

The verdict has raised many questions and generated vocal responses on both sides of the issue, from those who praise the ruling and those who vehemently disagree.  The Washington Post ran a compilation of short comments by members of its arts and culture staff on plagiarism in fields other than pop music (visual art, fiction writing, stand-up comedy, classical music, and theater) in response to the “Blurred Lines” verdict.  As Peggy McGlone writes in her introduction to the collection, “The recent verdict by a federal jury in Los Angeles may have settled one case, but it has ignited a larger debate about creativity and ownership and how to sort out the co-opted from the copied.”  McGlone, the Post’s local arts reporter, wryly remarks, “Blurred lines indeed,” and observes in the end, “While artists borrow, sample and appropriate frequently, the answer to the question ‘Did they steal?’ is usually no.” 

It can be a prickly question, even when reduced to the simpler-seeming legal issue of copyright infringement.  “There’s no history of art without borrowing, appropriation and in some cases theft,” says Washington Post art and architecture critic Philip Kennicott.  (He was writing about visual art, but his comment is applicable to all the arts.)  Some aspects of a performer’s art can’t be copyrighted.  Lyrics, tunes, even distinctive looks (with respect to costumes, hair and makeup, and even physical appearance; Jackie Onassis successfully sued Christian Dior in 1984 for making a commercial with a look-alike when Onassis refused), but not style—whatever that is.  Take, for example, the 1989 case of Bette Midler against the ad agency Young & Rubicam and the Ford Motor Company. 

In the 1970s, Ford started a TV commercial campaign which featured the singing of well-known singers.  If the original artists didn’t want to make the ad, Young & Rubicam hired a sound-alike to duplicate the song and the singer’s style for the commercial.  When the ad company approached Midler to sing her distinctive cover of “Do You Want to Dance” (from Midler’s 1973 début album, The Divine Miss M), she declined and Young & Rubicam brought in an imitator.  Midler, who (like Jackie Onassis) never makes commercials, took Ford and the ad agency to court in Midler v. Ford Motor Co., but she didn’t sue for copyright infringement because, while copyright law protects the song and her actual recording itself, it doesn’t protect imitations.  (Ford had obtained a license to use the song, so they were on legal grounds there.)  The singer claimed, however, that the imitation was a misappropriation of her identity because the version of the song as she recorded it was unmistakably identified with her, giving a different meaning to “identity theft.”  (The legal issues of this case are complex, but this is not the forum, nor am I competent, to discus them.)  Though Nancy Sinatra had lost a similar suit against Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. in 1970 for their use in a tire commercial of “These Boots Were Made For Walkin’,” a song strongly connected to her, Midler won her case on appeal (the original trial court had denied her claim).  She had sued for $10 million but was awarded $400,000; however, Madison Avenue was put on notice. 

Because these cases often concern plaintiffs or defendants who are performers, the court cases can get . . . well, interesting is a neutral way of describing them.  (“Bizarre” would probably be more accurate.)  For instance, in a 1989 case, comedy writers E. J. Novak and Debra Studer, a husband-and-wife team, sued NBC, the producers of Saturday Night Live, for copyright infringement in Novak v. National Broadcasting Co., Inc., claiming the network and SNL had taken material the duo had written in 1985 for a local program called Video Vault on independent station WOR-TV (New York City channel 9 and now known as WWOR) and reused it in six 1985 and ’87 sketches about, among other topics, the mobster Lucky Luciano, Attila the Hun, Frankenstein, and “The Fifth Beatle” (fictional oboist Wingo Murray).  Novak and Studer, who pursued NBC on this issue for over four years, ultimately lost their suit—but not so much on the merits themselves (although the judge found legal reasons to dismiss their cause), as the fact that the comedy writers pissed the judge off in court and in documents they filed. 

Novak and Studer’s principal error was that unlike most plaintiffs and defendants in plagiarism cases, they didn’t hire lawyers to represent them: they pleaded their own case at trial.  (NBC was represented by a white-shoe Manhattan firm.)  This decision led the plaintiffs to turn the courtroom into what the judge called a “playground for comics.”  After two years of polite exchanges between Novak and Studer and the defense attorneys, in 1989 they wrote the lawyers a note addressed to “Dear Laurel and Hardy” because of their physical appearances.  When the attorneys complained to the judge, Novak countered, “Their inconsistency and lack of consideration, even by attorneys’ standards, transcends the boundaries of law and enters that funny little netherworld we call—the Rudeness Zone.”  He then sent the defense team another note greeting them simply as “Stan” and “Ollie.”  In his turn, Novak complained to the judge, “The sight of Mr. Jones [one of the defense lawyers] rolling toward us in anger is a terrifying experience reminiscent of scenes from either ‘The Honeymooners’ or ‘Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.’  “‘Legal humor’ may or may not be an oxymoron,” observed the New York Times.  “But attempts at it can prove costly.” 

The judge took such exception to Novak and Studer’s verbal antics, he not only decided against them in the lawsuit, but assessed them $3500 in court costs (over $6800 today).  The Times reported that Novak alleged in an interview that he had his partner “were victims of pernicious linguistic discrimination.”  “We could have said, ‘Your Honor, according to habeas corpus writ dictum, this was dilatory and deceitful,’ but I’m not a lawyer,” said Novak. “We used humor where they used legalese.”  He added that the only people who were actually hurt by his language were Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, “because they were compared to these lawyers.”  However amusing and clever Novak and Studer were, they essentially scuttled their own legal boat when they took their professional tactics into what the Times labeled “the generally unfunny world of litigation.”

Possibly the strangest case with respect to courtroom demeanor was the 1985 copyright infringement suit brought against Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones.  Reggae singer-songwriter Patrick Alley sued Jagger for copying his song “Just Another Night,” which he said he’d recorded in 1979 and released on his 1982 album, A Touch of Patrick Alley, for Jagger’s own song of the same title (titles aren’t copyrightable) from the Stones frontman’s first solo album, 1985’s She’s the Boss.  The court in White Plains, New York, decided in 1988 that Jagger hadn’t stolen Alley’s song.

Patrick Alley v. Mick Jagger itself was relatively straightforward, but the presentation of the evidence offered in court was . . . I’d say it was unique.  In addition to presentation of transcriptions of the lyrics of both songs (by dueling experts, of course), as you would expect, according to the report in the New York Times, the testimony consisted of music, both live and recorded.  During the weeklong trial, a Juilliard instructor played the piano; Sly Dunbar, a Jamaican studio musician, performed on drums; and Jagger sang from the witness stand bits of his recordings “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” “Brown Sugar” and “Miss You.”  Predictably, taped recordings of Alley’s “Just Another Night,” a minor-key reggae ballad, and Jagger’s identically-titled up-tempo rock song were played in court as well.  Jagger also played work tapes to show the development of the song, and attorneys on both sides sang snippets of the two compositions.  Jagger signed autographs during breaks in the trial, and on the day before the verdict was rendered, when the jury deliberated for 3½ hours, fans broke through a courtroom door and tried to reach the Stones singer-guitarist. 

While the rest of the case was just what you’d expect in a copyright infringement trial for a piece of music—similar in most ways to other musical plagiarism cases such as the 1971 suit against Beatle George Harrison alleging that he copied the Chiffons’ 1962 charter “He’s So Fine” for his own 1970 hit “My Sweet Lord” (Harrison lost, but the judgment was small); Michael Jackson’s successful 1984 and 1993 defenses of his song “The Girl Is Mine” (recorded in 1982 in a duet with another former Beatle, Paul McCartney), first against Fred Sanford, writer of the song “Please Love Me Now,” and the second against songwriters Reynaud Jones and Robert Smith; and the case against the Bee Gees, also in 1983, charging that they’d stolen 1977’s “How Deep Is Your Love” from Chicago songwriter Ronald Selle’s 1975 song, “Let It End,” a suit which the group initially lost in the jury trial before the judge overturned the verdict and found for the Gibbs—the proceedings in court have always made me feel that the Jagger trial should be staged as a theatrical performance.  I mean, really: singing lawyers!  (Not to mention reggae and rock ’n’ roll music—it’s got hit written all over it!)  Can’t you just picture it?

The most absurd case of alleged plagiarism in the pop-music world, however, has to be the suit brought against John Fogerty, the principal songwriter of Creedence Clearwater Revival, in San Francisco in 1988.  As we can see, most cases of artistic theft are brought by one artist (or sometimes just a rights-holder) against another and the charge is invariably that the defendant has stolen intellectual property from the plaintiff.  In the Fogerty suit, the plaintiff was Fantasy, Inc., a company that owned the rights to Fogerty’s compositions for CCR from 1967 to 1972; the defendant was, of course, Fogerty.  But the charge was that the songwriter had stolen not from another songwriter, but . . . from himself.  Really?  Can you even do that?  How the hell can someone rationalize a charge like that?

But that’s what Saul Zaentz, owner of Fantasy Records (a division of Fantasy, Inc.), did.  He charged in Fantasy, Inc. v. Fogerty that Fogerty had plagiarized his own 1970 CCR hit “Run Through the Jungle” to produce his 1985 composition “Old Man Down the Road,” released on his 1985 comeback solo album, Centerfield.  Since Fantasy owned the rights to “Run Through the Jungle,” but not “Old Man,” written after CCR broke up in 1972, Zaentz could claim Fantasy’s copyright to the older song had been infringed—if he could, in fact, prove that Fogerty used the CCR hit to create his comeback number.  If the court bought Zaentz’s argument, it would mean that Fogerty had plagiarized himself.  Now, I have no legal training (despite the fact that I have lawyers all over both sides of my family, from uncles to cousins and now to those cousins’ children), so maybe it’s even possible for a court to entertain such a charge.  But in the rational world outside the courthouse, the one I live in, this is an absurd concept. 

One of Fogerty’s lawyers pointed out, “What similarities there were between the two songs were the result of Mr. Fogerty having written both of them,” which seems a no-brainer to me.  The attorney added, “Both of them came out of the same musical vocabulary,” and the songwriter pointed out at a news conference after the court case that the work of composers, writers, and singers exhibits the hallmarks of the artists’ individual styles.  In fact, I’d assert, that very similarity among an artist’s works is what constitutes her or his “style.”  It’s what we recognize immediately when we hear a song by a composer or singer we know, read a passage from a writer with whose books we’re familiar, or see a performance by an actor whose movies, TV shows, or plays we’ve seen before.  (In fact, it’s what analysts who do computer comparisons with a newly-discovered work and a known piece of writing rely on to determine if the new discovery is the product of the known writer, like, say, Shakespeare or Dickens.  It’s those similarities that make up the style the scientists line up to measure the degree of match.)  It’s not copying, at least not in a conscious way, it’s the innate characteristic of one artist’s art.  We recognize a van Gogh painting at a single glance because of the similarities it reveals to all the previous van Gogh paintings we’ve seen.  If artists are barred from using this stylistic attribute of their creativity, then that creativity will be severely impaired—if not destroyed entirely.  (Perhaps Zaentz and Fantasy had this in mind as a consequence of their action: to prevent Fogerty from creating new songs that would compete with the CCR catalogue they owned.)

In the end, the jury found that Fogerty hadn’t stolen from himself and Fantasy lost the suit.  I’d insist that Fogerty, or any artist, can’t steal from himself: it’s a metaphysical impossibility.  Fantasy appealed and lost again.  Fogerty sued the company for payment of legal costs in the suit, and after the trial court denied his claim and the Court of Appeals upheld that ruling, the singer-songwriter pursued Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc. to the Supreme Court and won in 1994—almost a decade after Fantasy, Inc. v. Fogerty was brought.  Fogerty v. Fantasy, Inc. was a precedent for awarding court costs to the winner in a copyright litigation, whether the plaintiff or the defendant, especially where the suit had been brought or defended frivolously or in bad faith.

The fact, whether recognized by the courts or not, is that emulation in the arts is not just common, but necessary.  Kennicott writes in the Washington Post, for instance, that without appropriation, “there’s almost no art to talk about.”  Shakespeare and Chaucer, observes Ron Charles, a Post book reviewer, both borrowed material for their literary masterpieces.  Artist Fernando Botero created his own Mona Lisa in 1977, derived from Leonardo da Vinci’s portrait, painted in the early 16th century.  Pyotr Tchaikovsky appropriated  “La Marseillaise,” written and composed in 1792 by Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle, for his 1812 Overture in 1882.  “Good artists borrow,” writes Post classical music critic Anne Midgette, attributing the line to Igor Stravinsky, “great ones steal.”  Copyright law, however, only protects exact words, musical phrasing, and images, so none of these examples would fall if haled into court.  What Post theater reviewer Nelson Pressley calls “the magpie culture of borrowing and re-appropriation” is a cornerstone of most artistic creation, whether it’s done to make a point, a comment, or an homage. 

Sometimes, the borrowing is part of a lengthy, attenuated conversation: Midgette describes how Dmitri Shostakovich quoted a passage from Franz Lehar’s The Merry Widow (1905) in his own Seventh Symphony (c. 1939-40) and then Béla Bartók picked it up and used the line again in Concerto for Orchestra (1943), each use a comment on the previous incarnations.  In theater, where Pressley says outright appropriation is rare, Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun (1959) gave birth to Bruce Norris’s 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning Clybourne Park, which picks up where Raisin left off and focuses on new issues and situations; Clybourne and Raisin then generated Kwame Kwei-Armah’s 2013 Beneatha’s Place, both a sequel to Raisin and a reply to Clybourne.  No matter how or why these and other creations are developed, they’re wholly independent works of art that have never been—nor should be—labeled plagiarism. 

Let me amend Lee Kahn’s admonition to his theater students: “The first rule of art is theft.”


  1. Wow! Some truly amazing court cases in this most interesting post. Tread carefully on the stage, your every word might land you in the soup.

    1. Thank you, PhilipH. I hope you enjoy more articles on ROT.