Songs on Trial: 10 Landmark Music Copyright Cases

Ahead of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway" showdown, we look back at historic rulings from "Surfin' U.S.A." to "Blurred Lines"

The Beach Boys vs. Chuck Berry (1963)
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The Beach Boys vs. Chuck Berry (1963)

"Surfin' U.S.A.," by the Beach Boys (1963) vs. "Sweet Little Sixteen," by Chuck Berry (1958)

The Case: The California boys often incorporated rock & roll pioneer Chuck Berry's songs into their early concerts. But 1958's "Sweet Little Sixteen" set Beach Boys' composer Brian Wilson into overdrive. Inspired by Berry's rapid-fire references to various American cities, he recast the song as a paean to a fun-in-the-sun sport. Wilson penned a new set of lyrics listing off the hot surfing locales across the Pacific coast. Wilson said he intended the song as a tribute to the rock guitarist, but Berry's lawyers used another term: plagiarism.

The Verdict: With the threat of lawsuits looming, Beach Boys manager – and Brian Wilson's father – Murry Wilson agreed to give the publishing rights to Arc Music, Berry's publisher. However, Berry's name wouldn't appear on the songwriting credits until 1966. 

Why It Matters: Although the genre was built on a handful of standard three-chord progressions and blues licks, the "Surfin' U.S.A." incident was one of the first major plagiarism scuffles in rock history.