Thursday, April 13, 2006
Courts Find ‘Rum and Coca-Cola’ Was Plagiarized
By ROGER M. GRACE
Use of a brand-name product in the name of a hit song surely is a rarity. Aside from “Rum and Coca-Cola,” the only one I can think of offhand is “In my Merry Oldsmobile.”
“Rum and Coca-Cola” is associated with the Andrews Sisters. Their Oct. 18, 1944 recording of the Calypso song became the nation’s most popular platter for 10 weeks, starting Feb. 10, 1945, and it attained the status of the third best-selling record of the 1940s. (Ahead of it were Bing Crosby’s rendition of “White Christmas” and Patti Page’s version of “Tennessee Waltz.”)
The record hit the top of the charts notwithstanding that it was virtually banned from radio. After all, it plugged a product and it mentioned liquor. The NBC “Blue” network did allow the Andrews Sisters to warble the song on the air—but it was introduced as “Going to Trinidad” and the lyrics were changed to “lime and Coca-Cola.” The Mutual network allowed orchestras to play the music, alone.
Too, the lyrics were racy for the time; it could be inferred that “both mother and daughter workin’ for the Yankee dollar” were working as prostitutes.
The Coca-Cola Company, which was zealous in protecting its trademark, had no objection to the use of “Coca-Cola” in the song—or, in 1961, to the chief character in the movie “One, Two, Three” being a Coca-Cola Company executive in Berlin (played by James Cagney). It was, after all, free publicity for Coke.
Morey Amsterdam is listed as wordsmith of the song. Amsterdam, best known for his role as gag-writer Buddy Sorrell on the 1960s CBS sitcom, “The Dick Van Dyke Show” (and who was a late night host on KTLA in Los Angeles in the late 1950s), actually plagiarized the lyrics, as well as the melody.
Amsterdam was in Trinidad (in the British West Indies) in 1943, a member of a troupe entertaining U.S. soldiers at an Army base. He heard the song, made some changes, and, back in the U.S., in December, 1944, obtained a copyright on it, apparently convinced that the natives in far-off Trinidad wouldn’t notice. What he didn’t know was that the song had been copyrighted in Trinidad in 1943 by its publisher, Mohamed H. Khan.
After the song became a huge hit in the U.S., Khan sued the U.S. publisher, Leo Feist, Inc., as well as Amsterdam and the two purported collaborators, for infringement of the copyright on the words.
There wasn’t much room for doubt as to the plagiarism. The chorus of the original lyrics, by Rupert Grant, went like this:
They buy rum and coco-cola
Go down Point Cumana
Both mother and daughter
Working for the Yankee dollar.
The chorus Amsterdam claimed to have written was:
Drinkin’ Rum and Coca Cola
Go down "Point Koomahnah"
Both Mother and Daughter
Workin’ for the Yankee Dollar.
The respective first choruses were also quite close—though the last line differs. The original:
Since the Yankees came to Trinidad
They have the young girls going mad
The young girls say they treat them nice
And they give them a better price.
Since the Yankee come to Trinidad
They got the young girls all goin’ mad
Young girls say they treat ’em nice
Make Trinidad like Paradise.
U.S. District Judge Mortimer Byers of New York said in his Feb 24, 1947 ruling that “[t]he infringement itself is too plain to justify more than the comparison” of those two portions of the respective versions.
Byers enjoined further infringement and ordered destruction of existing infringing copies in stock and an accounting. The judgment was affirmed by the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals on Dec. 20, 1947.
That lawsuit dealt only with the lyrics. Then came a suit filed by Maurice Baron, who held a copyright on the song “L’Annee Passee,” composed in Trinidad in 1906 by Lionel Belasco. Grant had adapted his lyrics to Belasco’s tune.
U.S. District Judge Simon Hirsch Rifkind of New York disbelieved testimony that Amsterdam’s cohorts Paul Baron and Jeri Sullavan had written the music.
“The rhythm, construction and the harmony of both songs”— “L’Annee Passee” and “Rum and Coca-Cola”—“are little short of identical,” he observed.
Rifkind referred the matter to a master for determination of damages. He was affirmed by the Second Circuit on March 16, 1949.
In the end, the infringers paid money, but retained the copyright.
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