“A good artist imitates, a great artist steals.”
It’s a ubiquitous quote, attributed to everyone from Picasso to T.S. Elliot, Stravinsky to Steve Jobs. The aphorism might appear cynical if taken at face value, but anyone who has ever been struck by the heavenly lightning bolt of inspiration will tell you otherwise. Plagiarism is a cardinal sin because it is boring. True art expands upon an existing idea. In the course of development, it becomes something new. We are not talking about thievery, we are discussing evolution.
Nü-metal had already become a well-established subgenre by the time Slipknot exploded on the scene in the twilight of the 1990s. Taking sonic inspiration from everyone from Korn to Napalm Death and visual cues from the likes of Kiss and Gwar, the Iowa titans didn’t reinvent the automobile, but they did take your mom’s old Ford Taurus and soup it up a bit.
In 2005, fast food conglomerate Burger King graced the world with their Chicken Fries menu. A fictional band called COQ ROQ was conceived as the corporate mascot for this tasty innovation. While the delicious stylings of COQ ROQ might have made for an amusing ad campaign, Burger King were a little too on the nose when it came to their source materials.
Although the company swore that COQ ROQ’s costumes were intended to resemble chickens, Slipknot fans felt otherwise. As the backlash grew to a fevered pitch, the band filed suit against Burger King for trade infringement. The Smoking Gun obtained a copy of the letter Slipknot’s legal team sent to Burger King, which reads in part, “It is obvious that the television advertising and website are designed to conjure up the image and persona of a live performance of Slipknot. In addition to capturing the flavor and high energy intensity of a Slipknot performance, the members of Coq Roq wear masks that include a gas mask as worn by Slipknot’s Sid Wilson, a kabuki style mask as worn by Slipknot’s Joey Jordison and a mask with dreads as worn by Slipknot’s Corey Taylor.”
Burger King filed a countersuit and asked for a “declaratory judgment” from the U.S. District Court judge in Miami, saying that many groups “wear masks and/or make-up to accomplish a mask-like effect, including but not limited to the bands KISS, Gwar, Insane Clown Posse, Mushroomhead, Mudvayne, Marilyn Manson, Los Straitjackets, and the Spits.”
In the end, absolutely nothing happened. The ad campaign ran its course and both COQ ROQ and Chicken Fries were lost to the sands of time. Still, the case is an illuminating example of the differences between inspiration and outright plagiarism.
To the credit of Burger King’s lawyers, the mention of Slipknot’s arch-nemesis Mushroomhead in their brief was indeed a touch of art.