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Lady Gaga, Madonna and Plagiarism

Casey Wright

I remember sitting in AP English my senior year of high school listening to a lecture about a very big ‘no-no’ for our end of the semester research paper: Plagiarism. How we had made it all the way to senior year before suffering through this lecture is beyond me. “It is not only morally wrong and against school code, but according the U.S Law, it is illegal to copy or steal the words or ideas of another person.”

Immediately a hand shot up. “But… um… how can you prove I’m stealing someone’s idea? What if I thought of it independently of another person? Isn’t ‘Pinocchio’ an original story even if it came after ‘Jonah and the Whale?’  Are people who wear bell bottoms plagiarizing hippies? Isn’t ‘You’ve got Mail’ the same movie as ‘Sleepless in Seattle?’ Are there any original ideas left?”

Debate ensued, as that is what 17 year old English scholars do best. To be honest, the only answer my teacher could give us was, “Don’t cheat on your homework…I’ll know.” And so I’m stuck here *cough* years later not knowing the answers myself. Lady Gaga & Madonna

Recently, Lady Gaga’s new single “Born this Way” sparked a similar question in people’s minds.  Is it too similar to Madonna’s “Express yourself” and/or “Vogue” to be considered an original? Or as my coworker Tom yelled across the office, “Can I just make up words to a Madonna song and call it mine? Has Madonna sued her yet???”

In 1990, Vanilla Ice released “Ice Ice Baby” with a base line clearly stolen from Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” without consent or license.  When the copyright infringement came to light, they settled out of court, and Queen and Bowie were eventually credited as writers. Vanilla Ice re-released the song with a tweaked the base line. I’ve been informed it’s now ‘duh duh duh DUH da-duh duh,’ but until actual lyrics set in, I still can’t tell the difference. Does the one extra note make the melody his?

What about artists who use clips of other artists’ songs in mash-ups? In Girl Talk’s 2010 album “All Day,” Gregg Gillis uses 370 samples to create a 71 minute, 12 track compilation. Not a single sample is long enough to break the copyright laws determined by the US government. Yet, is it original if there is not a measure of melody or single lyric that he wrote himself?

Are these artists plagiarizing?  With prehistoric musical instruments traced back 40,000 years, are there any original songs left? Did I steal the idea for this post from MTV?

Here’s what I do know. Tom didn’t rewrite a Madonna song, Lady Gaga did. “Under Pressure” doesn’t ‘rock a mic like a vandal,’ “Ice Ice Baby” does. The Band didn’t include any lyrics from Kris Kross when they wrote “The Weight,” but Girl Talk did. These musicians may not be revolutionary, but they are most certainly evolutionary. And for what it’s worth, I like them. As far as this blog post is concerned, if it is plagiarism, I fully expect my high school English teacher to have me arrested. CJP

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