Johnny Depp Accused Of Song Lyric Plagiarism

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By Douglas Helm
| Published

Johnny Depp may have come out of his recent legal battle with Amber Heard as a winner (at least in the monetary sense), but now he may be facing another legal issue with his new album. Depp recently released an album with guitarist Jeff Beck titled 18. While the majority of the tracks are covers and instrumentals, there are two original songs written by Johnny Depp himself. However, Depp has been accused of lyric plagiarism in his song “Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade,” so maybe it’s not so original after all.

According to folklorist Bruce Jackson in a story by Rolling Stone, the Johnny Depp and Jeff Beck song “Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade” contains a significant number of lines that can also be found in the Slim Wilson song “Hobo Ben,” including the line that gives the song its title. Lines that can be found in both songs include ” “[Y]ou better try to keep you ass in this corner of shade/’cause if the Man come you make a sad motherfuckin parade,” and “I’m raggedy, I know, but I have no stink.” Other lines that are found verbatim in the song include “God bless the lady that’ll buy me a drink,” and “What that funky motherfucker really needs, child, is a bath.” While there has been a long tradition of folk songs cribbing from older songs, the original authors of these lines haven’t been given any credit.

Bruce Jackson met Slim Wilson in 1964, eventually penning a book of toasts, a form of Black narrative poetry, that featured Slim Wilson heavily. The book was released in 1974 titled Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me. Slim would go on to narrate these toasts in an album of the same name two years later. According to Jackon, the new “Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade” song only contains two lines that can’t be found on “Hobo Ben.” While talking to Rolling Stone, Jackson and his son, who is a musical and intellectual property lawyer, are looking into legal options, but have yet to file anything. If Johnny Depp and Jeff Beck did directly copy these lyrics, the legal case wouldn’t be so simple. With older music, it can sometimes be difficult to pin down an exact author, meaning the legalities aren’t so cut and dry.

The only possible case that Jackson might have against Johnny Depp and Jeff Beck traces to the Copyright Act of 1909, which outlines what artists need to do to have copyright claims to their work. One of the main tenets is that the music or work needs to be written down or recorded in some way and that it needs to be original. This is a double problem for “Hobo Ben” since it was presumably passed down through tradition and Slim Wilson hadn’t written any of the toasts down. However, Jackson did transcribe the toasts in his book Get Your Ass in the Water. Though Jackson doesn’t claim authorship of the lyrics himself, pursuing the copyright claim could allow him to push Johnny Depp and Jeff Beck to the original artists like Slim Wilson.

With enough pressure, Johnny Depp and Jeff Beck may opt to give credit without going through the legal process. This would likely be the easiest route all around, but it remains to be seen if these lyric plagiarism accusations will amount to anything. Unless a lawsuit is filed, Depp and Jeff Beck don’t necessarily have to take action. Then again, Depp may want to do everything he can to stay out of the legal waters for a while. Make sure to stay tuned and we’ll keep you updated if there’s any momentum on this story.