Jeff Beck and Johnny Depp sue professor over plagiarism allegations

Jeff Beck and Johnny Depp
(Image credit: Lionel FLUSIN/Gamma-Rapho / Venla Shalin/Redferns via Getty)

Jeff Beck and Johnny Depp have launched legal action against a professor and folklorist who recently accused the pair of plagiarizing the lyrics of an old prisoner’s poem in one of their collaborative singles.

Bruce Jackson alleged the duo’s single Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade – lifted from Beck and Depp’s joint album, 18 – pulled lines from a spoken word poem titled Hobo Ben, which Jackson had referenced in his 1974 book Get Your Ass in the Water and Swim Like Me: African-American Narrative Poetry from the Oral Tradition, and 1976 album of the same name.

In his allegations, Jackson claimed the track’s lyrics were lifted from his work, which recited the words of a 1960’s jailed prisoner known as Slim Wilson, who in turn said he learned it from his father. 

Jackson does not claim authorship of the poem, but stated in his allegations, “The only two lines I could find in the whole piece that [Depp and Beck] contributed are ‘Big time motherfucker’ and ‘Bust it down to my level.’ Everything else is from Slim’s performance in my book.”

He continued, “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.”

At the time of Jackson’s allegations, a spokesperson for the two commented, “We are reviewing the inquiry relating to the song Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade on the 18 album by Jeff Beck and Johnny Depp. If appropriate, additional copyright credits will be added to all forms of the album.”

However, as per Rolling Stone (opens in new tab), Depp and Beck have now filed a lawsuit against Jackson for unspecified damages, attorneys fees and a declaration that they have not committed copyright infringement.

In their suit, Depp and Beck seem to reference the fact Hobo Ben doesn’t have a verifiable original author, with a statement instead suggesting Jackson “owns no copyrights in the words” to the poem and that the “copying of the toast into his book and subsequent recordings did not create any copyrights in those words”.

Elsewhere, Depp and Beck’s lawsuit recognizes “there may be some elements” or their single that “mirrors the words” of Hobo Ben, though ultimately describes Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade as “an original work of authorship and creativity”.

In response to the lawsuit, Jackson replied, “They didn’t write a word of Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade and they are suing the person they stole it from and who caught them doing it. From my point of view, this is like a burglar suing a homeowner because he cut his hand on the kitchen window he broke getting in.”

[L-R] Jeff Beck and Johnny Depp

(Image credit: Venla Shalin/Redferns)

A statement from lawyers Rachel and Michael Jackson – who are also Bruce’s children – said the pair’s lawsuit 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.”

“The hypocrisy runs deep with these two,” they continued. “On the one hand, they claim that Professor Jackson cannot have a copyright interest in the song Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade because it is a ‘toast’ or poem with uncertain authorship that was freely passed and shared within the African-American community – which Depp and Beck fully know is false. 

“On the other hand, they repeatedly claimed authorship of this same song – first on the digital release of 18, and, later, on the vinyl release of 18. How do they explain this? They don’t. Instead, they filed a lawsuit against the person who exposed their apparent misappropriation of this African American work in the song Sad Motherfuckin’ Parade.”

Jackson also rebuffed the two guitar player’s suggestions that his allegations were “part of an old-fashioned shakedown”, stating he never made “any formal financial demands” of the pair.

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Matt is a Staff Writer, writing for Guitar World, Guitarist and Total Guitar. He has a Masters in the guitar, a degree in history, and has spent the last 16 years playing everything from blues and jazz to indie and pop. When he’s not combining his passion for writing and music during his day job, Matt records for a number of UK-based bands and songwriters as a session musician.