Certainly, the Walt Disney Company has been the target for many charges of plagiarism and with the many musical experts who contribute to this site, I am hoping they may provide some greater insight into this story.
Some Day My Prince Will Come had lyrics by Larry Morey with music by Frank Churchill and was written for Disney’s legendary first animated feature, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.
The concept for Some Day My Prince Will Come first appeared in a story conference on August 1934. It was originally going to be part of a dream sequence of Snow White and the Prince dancing in the clouds surrounded by animated stars doing antics similar to the Silly Symphonies series.
Thornton Allen, owner of the copyright to the song Old Eli claimed that Churchill lifted the chorus of that song and used it in Some Day My Prince Will Come. “Old Eli” was slang to refer to Yale University that was named after its first major benefactor, Elihu Yale. Allen further claimed nine musical similarities between the two works:
“Old Eli March” was written by Wadsworth Doster in 1909, while he was a student at Yale University. Doster never copyrighted the song himself, but assigned all his rights, title and interest in it, including the right to copyright the same, to Allen and his music publishing company.
Thornton Allen included Old Eli in a volume of musical compositions titled Intercollegiate Song Book, Eastern Edition, which was published and put out to the public for sale on October 6, 1936. The copyright registration was September 26, 1936. You can hear a recording of the music here:
Allen claimed that on November 25, 1932, he had sent a copy of the song to the Disney Studios in addition to orchestra leaders and others in an attempt to get them interested in the song.
In his final decision, New York District Judge Conger wrote:
“It may be that he did send this copy to Disney when he says he did. On the other hand, Mr. Allen had no record of any kind, either to refresh his recollection or to substantiate his statement. He did have from the Disney Studio an acknowledgment of his letter of November 26, 1932.
“Mr. Allen was unable to produce a copy of his letter, but the respondents eventually produced the original from the Hollywood office of the Disney Studio, and it there appeared that the letter was directed to the Disney New York office, and not to the Hollywood office. It further appeared that there was enclosed in the letter a list of musical compositions which Mr. Allen was sending to Disney.
“The composition Old Eli was not specifically mentioned, but Mr. Allen claimed it was among those designated at the end of the list as ‘etc., etc.’ After all, the proof on this point is supported only by Mr. Allen’s recollection after these many years.
“Taking for granted, however, that he did send this copy of Old Eli to Disney in 1932, there is no proof that Mr. Churchill ever saw it. He has testified that he did not. It was not sent to him direct.
“If it was retained by Disney, it undoubtedly would have been in their library. Mr. Churchill testified that he used the library very little. That he composed by thinking of a tune in his mind, and then writing it down on a piece of paper. Weighing all the probabilities, I have come to the conclusion that the evidence is not sufficiently strong for me to hold that Churchill actually did see and have in possession, prior to or at the time he wrote his composition, a copy of Old Eli.”
According to the court testimony, Some Day My Prince Will Come was written by Frank Churchill, on or about November 1934, in connection with the movie production Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. The copyright on his song was obtained on January 25th, 1935, as an unpublished work, and requests for copyrights as a published work were made on December 14th, 1937. Some Day My Prince Will Come was published when the motion picture Snow White was first shown, which was around Christmas 1937.
The Disney Studios hired composer and music commentator Deems Taylor to testify on its behalf as an expert witness. Taylor appeared in Disney’s Fantasia (1940) and although his name is pretty much forgotten by modern audiences, he was quite popular and well known as a promoter of classical music including being an intermission commentator on radio for the New York Philharmonic. He served six years as president of ASCAP. Taylor was also a composer including orchestral works and operas and authored several books.
Since the main contention was the similarity of the notes in the first eight bars, Taylor testified that there was indeed a similarity in the first eight bars of each but with one significant difference. He discounted the importance of any minor similarity: “It is a very common harmonic progression. You find the elements of it in the exercises in harmony books.”
Later, when he dissected the measures, he made an analysis of the harmonies and found many substantial differences which he illustrated by charts and by use of the piano.
Allen’s primary claim was that out of a total of 30 notes in Old Eli, 27 are identical in Some Day My Prince Will Come.
Musical experts for Disney agreed that there was a similarity in the first four measures of each song, but that the rhythmic structure of each was entirely dissimilar, that the choruses in their entirety were substantially different; that the similarity would not impress someone as being any more similar than a number of other melodies that one might hear; that all popular music that is held down to a formula, more or less, is apt to be similar to other popular music that has been written at one time or another; that while the first eight bars were similar, there were more differences than similarities.
In addition to the Disney Studios, RKO Radio Pictures (that distributed the film) and Irving Berlin Inc. (because it published the song) were also respondents in the suit.
Judge Conger finally decided that he had “come to the conclusion that as far as this testimony is concerned, complainant has failed to convince the Court that the writer of the song Some Day My Prince Will Come copied the composition Old Eli to such an extent that it constituted piracy or plagiarism. In coming to this conclusion I have also used my own musical sense, such as it is, and I have arrived at the result that while there are similarities between the two compositions, there are a great many differences. I have heard the compositions played, and to my ear there is a similarity, but not such a similarity as would impress one. In other words, I would not take the one for the other.”
Conger also took in to account the reputation and works of the accused composer: “Mr. Churchill was a professional writer of undoubted ability. He composed music directly on paper and not by playing a piano. He apparently had real talent for composing. He had composed a great deal of music prior to this song, while working for Disney. He was given the words for Some Day My Prince Will Come and was told that a romantic melody was wanted in connection with it. The words or lyrics required the musical setting to be in waltz time.”
Conger also emphasized that there was no evidence that Churchill had direct access to Old Eli. Conger stated: “He denies that he ever heard it, and the evidence does not tend to contradict him.”