Weirdo Cases Of Plagiarism Involving Celebrities

As they say, behind every great story is someone claiming that they also wrote that story. Accusations of plagiarism are as old as art itself, and no creative endeavor is immune to people either taking ideas for themselves or swearing that an idea was theirs all along. What is surprising is how these cases can wind up playing out, regardless of who was in the right. For example ...

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6
Vanilla Ice Says He Resolved A Copyright Suit By Just Buying The Original

1990 was a wild time for entertainment, with groups like Milli Vanilli being buried alive for a lip-syncing controversy and the similarly named Vanilla Ice getting creamed for cribbing the baseline to his song "Ice Ice Baby" from Queen and David Bowie's "Under Pressure." When the rapper's song hit the airwaves, its novelty took over a bleak pop culture landscape, but also sounded quite familiar to anyone who'd been alive nine years earlier, possibly because large chunks of it were a note-for-note copy:

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Queen and Bowie heard the song and rightly sought to protect their work from Ice's Gap commercial lyrics. The one-hit wonder quickly realized how stupid it would be to get into a dick-measuring contest by taking the claim to court. And so, in a bit of news you might find depressing, he claims to have simply bought the rights to the original song, rather than go through the parade of lawyers that Queen and Bowie could throw at him. This would mean that 1) he made enough money off the ripoff to buy the thing he ripped off, and 2) he now profits when you listen to either song.

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I said "claims to" earlier because after Ice mentioned this publicly, representatives from Queen disputed it, implying that instead some kind of compromise was reached without going into much detail. The most commonly reported version is that Ice ended up owning "Under Pressure," while Queen and Bowie got writing credits on "Ice Ice Baby," which is a Satanic bargain at best. Despite the passing of both Bowie and Freddie Mercury, their work remains some of the most seminal rock of all time. Meanwhile, Vanilla Ice performs as Vanilla Zerg for the Gathering of the Juggalos, and he's apparently happy.

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5
Everyone Claims Harry Potter Was Stolen From Them

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, the first person to become a billionaire solely by writing books, is basically a one-woman mint. Say what you will about her (like her stance on transgender people being super weird for a woman whose fantasy series hinges on accepting others), but the one thing you can't say is that this doesn't present an attractive target. She's had her pocketbook assailed by everybody and their brother, who claim they really created Harry Potter.

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When the series was gaining popularity, there was an almost immediate attack by small press (and that's putting it charitably) author Nancy Stouffer, who said in 2001 that Rowling had ripped her off. True, Stouffer wrote a coloring book with a character named Larry Potter (no relation) who had black hair and glasses. But he wasn't a wizard, and her lawsuit (in which she also brought up that another, uh, "book" of hers had weird creatures called Muggles, a term that's actually jazz slang for a type of weed) wasn't taken seriously by the courts, which made her pay $50,000 for lying her ass off. And this was despite a new publisher trying to rebrand her as "N.K. Stouffer" and slathering her creations with drawings of castles.

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The family of British fantasy author Adrian Jacobs also tried suing over what they claimed were plot similarities between Goblet Of Fire and his Willy The Wizard (like the entirely one-of-a-kind concepts of wizards in a contest and doing crazy stuff like riding on trains). But despite flogging their dead relative's work, the courts found their suit more of a Harry Potter And The Crock Of Shit than anything else.

But even when there hasn't been a suit, the press has still relentlessly tried to find comparisons, such as with Neil Gaiman's Books Of Magic (at least that involved a kid in glasses finding a secret magical world and befriending owls). For his part, Gaiman doesn't care in the slightest. As he points out, "Boy wizard goes off to magic school" isn't exactly a new and unique idea. It's just that nobody had made a billion dollars off it before.

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4
Huey Lewis Sued Ray Parker Jr. For Ripping Off The Ghostbusters Theme

It is universally agreed that Hollywood was better back when every big-budget movie had a song that was specifically about what happens in the movie. The new Star Wars trilogy could have been saved by simply having Drake do a song about the Force, complete with a video in which various members of the cast do the Force Dance. I mean, where would Ghostbusters have been without this:

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The problem is that this tune was suspiciously familiar to Huey Lewis. He had a mega-hit in 1983 with "I Want A New Drug," and it kind of sounded like somebody had done a token amount of altering and made the whole thing about busting ghosts:

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The franchise, which counts a cartoon series and a Hi-C flavor among its high points, is very much defined by Parker's theme tune. So Lewis sued over the seemingly identical song, which matched down to the lyric beats and bass lines. The suit was settled out of court and buried under such double-secret probation that when Lewis even mentioned it on a VH1 Behind The Music special, Parker had his lawyers drop a suit on Lewis in retaliation.

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So while we don't know the exact outcome, what we do know is how this happened. As director Ivan Reitman said in an Esquire interview, he'd edited a montage in the film to Lewis' song, using it as a temporary placeholder. And when it came time to give Parker a hint as to what they wanted, the hint was that they wanted pretty much exactly the same thing, only with the movie's title worked in there somehow. (Parker famously complained that nothing rhymes with "Ghostbusters.") Being one of the last artists contacted after the team had rejected 50 other songs, and having only a couple of days to deliver, Parker did what they wanted, and the rest is pop culture (and legal) history.

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3
Andy Warhol Has Been Sued A Bunch -- Even Over A Cartoon Banana

Andy Warhol achieved pop culture immortality, even if the price of that immortality is to be portrayed in comedies like Austin Powers or Men In Black 3 as a sort of aloof albino weirdo who makes art out of everyday objects (possibly because he was very much an aloof weirdo who did exactly that). He turned Campbell's soup cans and Brillo pad boxes into high art that Richie Riches scramble to give their left nuts to pay for. Warhol (and since his death, his estate) have been at the center of some lawsuits that are absolutely bananas (literally).

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Warhol got sued for stealing the work of Patricia Caulfield when he did silk-screened versions of some of her photographs of flowers. He offered to pay her in paintings, but she held out for cash instead, which was probably a mistake in hindsight. But it was his version of a yellow cartoon banana that would end up being huge in the slate of cases leveled against him. Having originally provided the simplistic drawing for the Velvet Underground, the Warhol Foundation would find themselves under legal threat for licensing the banana to Apple to slap all over accessories for their iPod and iPad lines.

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The VU first tried to say that the banana was in the public domain, then amended their suit to say that the Warhol Foundation couldn't claim copyright. Their claim went back to the image's creation, when Warhol was paid $3,000 for it, and how it became associated with the band over the years, despite their not putting a copyright on it themselves. Instead of appealing the banana, the Warhol Foundation made a deal to not sue VU over copyright which led the judge to dismiss the case. I think the moral of this is that there are a lot of fruits, guys. If they've got the banana, just use a fuckin' orange or something.

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2
George Harrison Took The Chiffons' "He's So Fine" For Himself

George Harrison, the "other one" of the Beatles, went full '60s spiritualist when he started a solo career, writing songs like 1970's "My Sweet Lord" -- a soulful number that happened to rip off the work of the Chiffons, an all-African-American, all-female Motown group. When he got sued by the song's publishers, Bright Tunes, on behalf of the late original writer Ronnie Mack, there would be a new word salad term introduced to the courts by the judge: "subconscious plagiarism."

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What that mostly comes down to is fancy speak for "He did an oopsy, but he's also very rich." Harrison would wind up owing $1.5 million to the original publishers by the time it was all said and done. But instead of paying it, he did what Vanilla Ice would later claim to have done with Under Pressure, though in a roundabout way. When Harrison's former manager, Allen Klein, bought Bright Tunes (thus making him the plaintiff) Harrison appealed. The judge bought Harrison's side, knocking the amount down to just under $600,000 (the amount Klein had paid to acquire Bright Tunes in the first place).

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The suit lasted until 1998, and Harrison ended up owning "He's So Fine" by the end, despite having originally been found guilty of plagiarizing it. So if you ever blatantly rip off the creative efforts of others, please try to be wealthy.

1
Shepard Fairey Almost Went To Jail Over The Obama "Hope" Poster

There's a lot that can be said about the Obama presidency, but it's impossible to argue that their (unofficial) campaign art was anything but instantly iconic. "Hope" is up there with the "I Want You" Uncle Sam recruiting poster and "I Like Ike" in terms of things that feel political and 100% American all at once -- the polar opposite to something like Nixon's totally real "They Can't Lick Our Dick" campaign. Shepard Fairey created the iconic piece, and in return, he'd become embroiled in plagiarism scandals and nearly get a jail sentence.

Weirdo Cases Of Plagiarism Involving Celebrities

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When the poster became huge, the Associated Press discovered that Fairey had based the image of Obama on a picture one of their cadre of roving photogs had taken on the campaign trail. In his rush to fend off a huge news agency suing him to oblivion, Fairey tried to claim he'd used a different picture, and faked some evidence that got his ass a probation sentence and hefty fine. It was only by the skin of his teeth that he avoided jail for creating a poster to represent hope.

In the end, the AP and Fairey settled on a plan that shared profits for any future "Hope" art revenue. Fairey got to stay out of jail, and the AP got the promise of money out of it -- and we got to see art celebrating a newfound sense of optimism after years of depressing political downturns. And if you haven't checked the news since 2015 or so, that optimism really seems to have lasted!

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Andrew McRae has books and eBooks available at Amazon and Barnes and Noble. He can also be found on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, as well as writing for Lewtonbus.

For more, check out Why Chris Nolan Stole Inception From DuckTales (Seriously):


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