Chuck Berry and Toyota Land Cruisers

One of the things I did not get into in my recent piece on the books of Professor Peter Navarro, Donald Trump’s chief trade adviser, was his complaint that there exists in China an SUV that is a rip-off of the Toyota Land Cruiser.

The Chinese are great copyists.

But, then, so were the Japanese, especially the gentlemen at Toyota, until the day before yesterday, and the Land Cruiser was, arguably, Toyota’s greatest exercise in the highest form of flattery. The line of vehicles which ended up becoming the earliest Land Cruisers were copies — sometimes literally reverse-engineered reproductions — of vehicles made by Willys and Bantam. The main customers for those copies were the Japanese government and, later, the U. S. government. Even the name “Land Cruiser” is a knockoff, inspired by the British Land Rover — which was itself if not exactly a copy of the Jeep then at the very least deeply indebted to it; the original Land Rover prototype was in fact built on a Jeep chassis.

China’s outright theft of intellectual property and its indulgence of product piracy (about half of which is fake Louis Vuitton bags, according to one estimate) is an important issue, one that is, in my view, more important than China’s trade policy per se. Thievery ought to be prevented and punished, and Beijing ought to do more on that front if it wants to be considered a more normal and responsible government. (Beijing of course would have much more to do on that front.) But the line between influence and intellectual thievery is not always very clear.

Consider the case of the late Chuck Berry. There is no doubt that he was an original, but . . . this opening riff sounds awfully familiar, as Berry himself readily acknowledged. (And this Bach melody, if indeed it is a Bach melody, was centuries old before the Toys got ahold of it — and their version was itself only an improvement on a largely forgotten earlier pop version composed decades before.) Everybody knows “Johnny B. Goode,” but far fewer know “Ain’t That Just Like a Woman?” Shakespeare was not the first to have a go at Hamlet’s story. We have Honda motorcycles that look a lot like Harley Davidsons and Chryslers that look a bit like Bentleys.

The Land Cruiser ended up becoming a vehicle far superior to the ones that inspired it, but the men who build it can hardly complain very convincingly about being copied.

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