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

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Getty Images

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.

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

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.

Friday’s Best Amazon Deals Include Digital Projectors, Ugly Christmas Sweaters, and Speakers

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Amazon
As a recurring feature, our team combs the web and shares some amazing Amazon deals we’ve turned up. Here’s what caught our eye today, December 4. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers, including Amazon, and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Good luck deal hunting!

10 Surprising Facts About Wham!’s 'Last Christmas'

Michael Putland/Getty Images
Michael Putland/Getty Images

Over the course of his illustrious career, George Michael gave the world many gifts. One that keeps on giving is “Last Christmas,” the 1984 holiday classic by Wham!, Michael's pop duo with Andrew Ridgeley. “Last Christmas” is such a uniquely beloved song that it inspired a 2019 film of the same name. That’s just one interesting part of the “Last Christmas” story. Read on for 10 fascinating facts about this seasonal synth-pop favorite.

1. George Michael wrote "Last Christmas" in his childhood bedroom.

“Last Christmas” was born one day in 1984 when George Michael and Wham! bandmate Andrew Ridgeley were visiting Michael’s parents. While they were sitting around watching TV, Michael suddenly dashed upstairs to his childhood bedroom and composed the modern Xmas classic in about an hour. “George had performed musical alchemy, distilling the essence of Christmas into music,” Ridgeley said. “Adding a lyric which told the tale of betrayed love was a masterstroke and, as he did so often, he touched hearts."

2. “Last Christmas” isn’t really a Christmas song.

There’s nothing in “Last Christmas” about Santa, reindeer, trees, snow, or anything we typically associate with the holiday. Rather, the song is about a failed romance that just happens to have begun on December 25, when Michael gave someone his heart, and ended on December 26, when this ungrateful person “gave it away.”

3. George Michael wrote and produced the song—but that’s not all.

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By the time Wham! recorded “Last Christmas” in August (yes, August) 1984, Michael had taken full control of the group. In addition to writing and producing the song, Michael insisted on playing the Roland Juno-60 synth in the studio. “George wasn’t a musician,” engineer Chris Porter said. “It was a laborious process, because he was literally playing the keyboards with two or three fingers.” Michael even jangled those sweet sleigh bells himself.

4. “Last Christmas” didn’t reach #1 on the UK charts.

As the movie Love Actually reminds us, scoring a Christmas #1 in the UK is a really big deal. Unfortunately, “Last Christmas” didn’t give Wham! that honor. It stalled at #2, and to this day it has the distinction of being the highest-selling UK single of all time to not reach #1.

5. George Michael sang on the song that kept “Last Christmas” at #2.

“Last Christmas” was bested on the UK charts by Band Aid’s “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” an all-star charity single benefiting Ethiopian famine relief. Michael sang on “Do They Know It’s Christmas,” and was so committed to the cause that he donated his profits from “Last Christmas” to helping the African nation.

6. George Michael was sued for plagiarism over “Last Christmas.”

In the mid-1980s, the publishing company Dick James Music sued George Michael on behalf of the writers of “Can’t Smile Without You,” a schmaltzy love song recorded by The Carpenters and Barry Manilow, among others. According to Chris Porter, the recording engineer on “Last Christmas,” the suit was dismissed after a musicologist presented 60-plus songs that have a similar chord progression and melody.

7. "Last Christmas" has been covered by a lot of other artists.

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Jimmy Eat World, Hilary Duff, Good Charlotte, Ariana Grande, Carly Rae Jepsen, Gwen Stefani, and Taylor Swift are just a few of the artists who’ve covered “Last Christmas” over the years. The strangest rendition may be the 2006 dance version by the Swedish CGI character Crazy Frog, which reached #16 on the UK charts.

8. Some people make a concerted effort to avoid hearing “Last Christmas.”

While millions of people delight in hearing “Last Christmas” every year, an internet game called Whamageddon encourages players to avoid the song from December 1 to 24. The rules are simple: Once you hear the original Wham! version of “Last Christmas” (remixes and covers don’t count), you’re out. You then admit defeat on social media with the hashtag #Whamageddon and wait for your friends to suffer the same fate. Note: The rules prohibit you from “deliberately sending your friends to Whamhalla.”

9. “Last Christmas” finally charted in America following George Michael’s death in 2016.

Back in 1984, “Last Christmas” wasn’t released as a commercial single in the United States, and therefore it wasn’t eligible for the Billboard Hot 100 chart. However, Billboard changed its rules in 1998, and in the wake of George Michael’s unexpected death on Christmas Day 2016, the song finally made its Hot 100 debut. In December 2018, it reentered the charts and peaked at #25.

10. George Michael was involved in 2019's Last Christmas movie.

November 2019 saw the release of Paul Feig's Last Christmas, a romantic comedy inspired by the song starring Game of Thrones's Emilia Clarke. Producer David Livingstone came up with the idea while George Michael was still alive, and when he pitched the pop star on the project, he was given the greenlight—with one condition: Michael stipulated that actress and author Emma Thompson write the movie. Thompson co-authored the story and the screenplay, and she even wound up playing a supporting role.