An Italian court has ruled that Prince plagiarized a 1983 Italian disco tune when he wrote his 1995 hit “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World.” The original song by Bruno Bergonzi and Michele Vicino, “Takin’ Me to Paradise,” appeared on a number of dance compilations in the early 80s. But how convincing is the evidence? Are we to really believe that Prince — a prodigiously creative musician who has probably written more music than anyone else alive — stole someone else’s tune?
The evidence hinges on 10 notes, which are the melody in the chorus of the Bergonzi/Vicino song as well as the recurring melodic motif in the Prince song:
Chorus from “Takin’ Me to Paradise” by Bergonzi and Vicino
This is such a brief, basic melodic fragment that it is difficult to claim that anyone “owns” it. Its core repetition in Prince’s song, however — basically establishing the structure of the entire song through both verse and chorus, a common R&B trait — ends up defining the song. And that’s what made him vulnerable to the charge of plagiarism.
It’s possible that Prince heard the tune years earlier and it unconsciously resurfaced in his writing. But it’s also possible that the melodic fragment, as simple as it is, was picked up separately by each composer. It’s fairly obvious that “The Most Beautiful Girl in the World” is the better of the two songs, bringing out the latent sensuality in the unaccented downbeats of the melody. But that’s irrelevant from a legal standpoint.
The case has dragged on for at least 15 years (apparently Italian courts are even slower than American courts). While the original court decision in 2003 rejected the plagiarism claim, the case was appealed and resulted in the current ruling. There must still be a third and final hearing for the decision to stand, however, which may take several more years. Under the ruling, Prince must cease distributing the song in Italian territory. He may also be liable for royalties to the Italian duo.
Compare the melody in the verse of the two songs below. Did John Legend rip off the Classics IV? Or is this another case of a simple melodic pattern appearing decades apart?
And that’s the gray area of copyright infringement. It’s not as objective as it would seem, and different people can have different perspectives about the same music. If you were a judge in the case against Prince, how would you rule?
[Photo courtesy of Micahmedia, Wikipedia, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license]