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Johnny Depp Sues Professor Who Accused Him of Plagiarizing Song on His New Album, Calls Claim an ‘Old-Fashioned Shakedown’

Jeff Beck and Johnny Depp

Jeff Beck and Johnny Depp

Actor and musician Johnny Depp and his friend and “musical soulmate” Jeff Beck have filed a lawsuit against a professor and folklorist who accused them of plagiarizing one of the songs on their latest album, “18.” The defendant, Bruce Jackson, claimed that one of the rock duo’s new songs lifts lyrics directly from Slim Wilson, a Missouri prisoner featured heavily in Jackson’s 1974 book “Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me.”

As documented in Jackson’s book, a Wilson toast titled “Hobo Ben” contains the lyrics, “I’m raggedy, I know, but I have no stink / God bless the lady that’ll buy me a drink” and “What that funky motherfucker really needs, child, is a bath.” Another line from the toast goes, “you better try to keep you ass in this corner of shade/’cause if the Man come you make a sad motherfuckin’ parade.” Those lyrics also appear on Depp and Beck’s song “Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade.”

Jackson, a Distinguished Professor at the University of Buffalo, in August told Rolling Stone that Depp and Beck only contributed two original lines to the song, with the rest coming directly from his documentation of Slim performing the song.

“Everything else is from Slim’s performance in my book,” Jackson reportedly told the magazine. “I’ve never encountered anything like this. I’ve been publishing stuff for 50 years, and this is the first time anybody has just ripped something off and put his own name on it.”

Notably, “Slim Wilson” is a pseudonym for the prisoner who shared numerous songs, poems, and “toasts” with Jackson for the book.

Jackson in August sent Depp and Beck two demand letters claiming that through his book, he owned the copyright in “the only known authorized transcription and recording of ‘Hobo Ben.'”

But in their lawsuit, filed Friday in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of New York, Depp and Beck claim that Jackson holds no rights over the toast itself.

“What is clear about the origins and creation of the ‘Hobo Ben’ toast is that it was not created or written by Defendant. What is also clear is that Defendant owns no copyrights in the ‘Hobo Ben’ toast and, if any copyrights do exist in it, they were never assigned or otherwise transferred to Defendant,” the suit states. “Contrary to Defendant’s allegations, Defendant owns no copyrights in the words to the ‘Hobo Ben’ toast, and his own copying of the toast into his book and subsequent recordings did not create any copyrights in those words. In fact, as part of a ‘folklore’ or ‘oral tradition’ apparently passed down for generations as Defendant himself explained in his GYA Book, it is not clear at all that anyone owns copyrights to the words of the ‘Hobo Ben’ toast.”

Depp and Beck concede that “there may be elements of the SMP song that mirror the words of the ‘Hobo Ben’ toast,” but assert that their song “is an original work of authorship and creativity.” The suit further states that the toast as it appears in Jackson’s book and recordings is “not an original work of authorship” created by Jackson.

The suit seeks a judicial determination that the copyrights asserted by Jackson in “Hobo Ben” are invalid and declaratory judgment that Depp and Beck did not infringe upon any purported copyright. They’re additionally requesting unspecified damages and reasonable attorneys’ fees.

The suit asserted Jackson’s claims amount to “an old-fashioned shakedown.”

Jackson’s attorneys in the matter, Michael Jackson and Rachel Jackson, who are also his children, reportedly told Rolling Stone that the suit was a “bald attempt to distract the public’s attention away from their repeated attempts to claim authorship for a song that they did not write.”

“It is important to understand that Depp and Beck have not denied that the lyrics and nuance of the vocals performed on Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade appear to have been duplicated by Depp and Beck, which they have appropriated and credited to themselves,” the statement reportedly said. “When this story first broke, Depp and Beck issued a statement to Rolling Stone saying that ‘if appropriate, additional credits will be added to all forms of the album.’ Why have they walked away from this promise?”

Wayne Dennison is the lawyer who signed the complaint, but attorneys Ben Chew and Camille Vasquez (who many will remember from the Depp-Amber Heard defamation trial) are also named as attorneys to appear pro hac vice in the case.

[Image via YouTube/screenshot]

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Jerry Lambe is a journalist at Law&Crime. He is a graduate of Georgetown University and New York Law School and previously worked in financial securities compliance and Civil Rights employment law.