Songs on Trial: 12 Landmark Music Copyright Cases
Western music is made up of just 12 notes, which yield a practically infinite number of songs. That’s the theory, at least. It’s only natural that composers mimic what’s been successful in the past, but as Robin Thicke and Pharrell learned the hard way, there’s a blurred line between inspiration and theft. And musical copyright continues to be a hot-button issue, affecting everyone from Madonna, Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran and Lana Del Rey to the mighty Led Zeppelin.
Read on for 12 of the most infamous copyright infringement cases in pop music history. From lyrical lifts and unlicensed sampling, to melodies that sound just a tad too similar, there are many points of contention. Are the original artists looking out for their intellectual property or their bank balance? The jury is out.
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.
Led Zeppelin vs. Willie Dixon (1972)
"Bring It On Home," by Led Zeppelin (1969) vs. "Bring It On Home," by Sonny Boy Williamson (written by Willie Dixon) (1966)
"Whole Lotta Love," by Led Zeppelin (1969) vs. "You Need Love," by Muddy Waters (written by Willie Dixon) (1962)
The Case: Courts found that two tracks on II, Led Zeppelin's sophomore album, owed crushing debts to Chicago blues classics by Willie Dixon. Album opener "Whole Lotta Love" copped lyrics from the 1962 Dixon-penned Muddy Waters song "You Need Love." The source material for Zep's "Bring It On Home" is even more apparent. Page borrowed the intro and outro of Sonny Boy Williamson's 1966 original, intending it as a deliberate homage to the blues great; Dixon didn't see it that way and sued the band for copyright infringement in 1972. He took them to court again in 1985 over writing credits on "Whole Lotta Love," which by then had become a classic-rock staple.
The Verdict: Both suits were settled out of court for undisclosed – but presumably large – sums. Songwriting credit reverted to Dixon in the case of "Bring It On Home," and his name is also included on "Whole Lotta Love" along with the rest of Led Zeppelin. Despite the cost, Robert Plant was unbothered by the controversy over the latter song. "Page's riff was Page's riff," he told Musician Magazine in 1990. "It was there before anything else. … At the time, there was a lot of conversation about what to do. It was decided that it was so far away in time and influence that … well, you only get caught when you're successful. That's the game."
Why It Matters: Led Zeppelin's artistic debt to the blues, one shared by many of their British classic-rock peers, was never in doubt, but these suits actually took legal stock of that debt – and put a price tag on it.
George Harrison vs. The Chiffons (1976)
"My Sweet Lord," by George Harrison (1970) vs. "He's So Fine," by the Chiffons (written by Ronnie Mack) (1962)
The Case: Harrison became the first Beatle to have a solo Number One on the Billboard charts with his ode to piety "My Sweet Lord." The subject matter was as far from early-Sixties Brill Building pop as one could get, but musically the verses bear a strong resemblance to the Chiffons' 1962 hit "He's So Fine," written by Ronnie Mack. Mack's publisher, Bright Tunes Music Corporation, filed a plagiarism suit in February 1971, but the case wouldn't go to trial until 1976. In the intervening years, the Chiffons themselves would record a version of "My Sweet Lord" to draw attention to the upcoming trial. Harrison claimed that he actually based the melody of the song on the public-domain hymn "Oh Happy Day," but admitted the similarity to "He's So Fine" in his autobiography, I Me Mine.
The Verdict: The judge ruled that Harrison was guilty of "subconscious plagiarism." The penalty phase was delayed until February 1981. He was initially ordered to pay $1,599,987, but this was lowered to $587,000 when his former manager Allen Klein purchased Bright Tunes Music and negotiated the sale of the song to Harrison. Litigation continued until March 1998, making it one of the longest legal skirmishes in American history. "I don't feel guilty or bad about it," he continued in his autobiography. "In fact it saved many a heroin addict's life. I know the motive behind writing the song in the first place and its effect far exceeded the legal hassle."
Why It Matters: In addition to introducing the phrase "subconscious plagiarism" into the popular lexicon, the ruling set a precedent of harsher copyright standards and ushered in a wave infringement suits.
Ray Parker Jr. vs. Huey Lewis and the News (1984)
"Ghostbusters" by Ray Parker Jr. (1984) vs. "I Want a New Drug," by Huey Lewis and the News (1984)
The Case: Producers of the film Ghostbusters originally approached Huey Lewis to pen the film's theme, but he was already committed to work on another sci-fi comedy – Back to the Future – and declined. Producers tapped Ray Parker Jr. to do the honors, apparently directing him toward a sound that could be described as "Huey Lewis-esque." Lewis himself certainly thought so, and filed a suit against Parker, alleging that he lifted the melody from his own song "I Want a New Drug."
The Verdict: The pair settled out of court in 1995 on the condition that both parties refrain from speaking about the suit in public. All was well until Lewis unloaded about the settlement on a 2001 episode of VH1's Behind the Music. Parker sued him soon after for breaching the confidentiality agreement.
Why It Matters: Though no legal precedents were set, the lawsuit's ghostly reemergence served as a strong reminder that confidentiality agreements weren't just a formality.
John Fogerty vs. Creedence Clearwater Revival (1985)
"The Old Man Down the Road," by John Fogerty (1985) vs. "Run Through the Jungle," by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1970)
The Case: Fogerty's 1972 split with his Creedence Clearwater Revival bandmates and their label, Fantasy Records, was so acrimonious that Fogerty refused to perform songs from his former group for 15 years. When he released his chart-topping solo disc Centerfield in 1985, Fantasy filed a lawsuit claiming that the lead single, "The Old Man Down the Road" stole from "Run Through the Jungle," a song he wrote and recorded with Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1970.
The Verdict: Bringing his guitar to the courtroom witness stand, Fogerty ably demonstrated that the two songs were in fact different compositions. The judge ruled in his favor in 1994, and he countersued Fantasy Records president Saul Zaentz to recoup his legal costs. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court before Fogerty won and was awarded coverage for his fees in both cases.
Why It Matters: In addition to the sheer novelty of being sued for sounding too much like oneself, Fogerty's countersuit became a precedent-setting Supreme Court case that regulates how attorney fees are paid out to artists in copyright cases.
Vanilla Ice vs. Queen and David Bowie (1990)
"Ice Ice Baby," by Vanilla Ice (1989) vs. "Under Pressure," by Queen, David Bowie (1981)
The Case: To anyone with functional eardrums, it's clear that Vanilla Ice's pop-rap crossover hit sampled the bass line to the 1981 Queen/Bowie collaboration "Under Pressure." But Ice famously insisted that the two melodies are distinct because he added a beat between notes. Ice later claimed that this rationale was merely a joke. Representatives for Queen and Bowie weren't laughing and threatened a copyright infringement suit.
The Verdict: The case was settled out of court, costing Ice an undisclosed sum and earning him a not-insignificant amount of public scorn. Bowie and members of Queen all received songwriting credits on the track.
Why It Matters: "Ice Ice Baby" sparked discussion about the punitive actions taken in plagiarism cases. While copyright laws do a fair job of protecting the financial interests of artists, there are fewer measures in place to protect their creative interests. In this instance, Vanilla Ice willfully used a classic hook without permission. Though he paid the price, some argue that isn't enough to make up for the potential credibility lost by Queen and David Bowie, who are now linked to him through a collaboration they had no choice in joining.
Moreover, Ice's weak defense makes this one of the most hilarious copyright cases of all time.
De La Soul vs. The Turtles (1991)
"Transmitting Live From Mars," by De La Soul (1989) vs. "You Showed Me," by the Turtles (written by Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark) (1969)
The Case: The hip-hop collective De La Soul built their masterpiece 3 Feet High and Rising from a vast library of samples spanning genres, languages and decades. At a time when sampling was relatively new (and relatively lawless), not all of the snippets received the proper clearance. Among these was a 12-second segment from the Turtles' 1969 song "You Showed Me," used on the interlude skit "Transmitting Live From Mars." Former Turtles Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman leveled a $2.5 million lawsuit at Prince Paul and company in 1991. "Sampling is just a longer term for theft," Volman told the L.A. Times. "Anybody who can honesty say sampling is some sort of creativity has never done anything creative." Ironically, the song was written by none of the Turtles, but instead by Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark of the Byrds.
The Verdict: The case was settled out of court, with Volman and Kaylan netting a sum reportedly as high as $1.7 million. De La Soul claim they never paid that much.
Why It Matters: Rap artists believed this ruling set a dangerous precedent that would bankrupt them due to licensing or legal fees and would ultimately destroy hip-hop. The case precipitated a steady decline in sampling as labels grappled with the financial and logistical headaches of ensuring all artists were properly paid and credited. Heavily sampled albums like 3 Feet High would likely be impossible to make today.
2 Live Crew vs. Roy Orbison (1994)
"Oh, Pretty Woman," by Roy Orbison (1964) vs. "Pretty Woman," by 2 Live Crew (1989)
The Case: When their album As Nasty as They Wanna Be was met with accusations of obscenity, 2 Live Crew produced a sanitized version with the tongue-in-cheek title As Clean as They Wanna Be. This disc contained a humorous take on Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman." Called simply "Pretty Woman," the Crew describes the titular woman in less-than-glowing terms as they rap over a sample of the original 1964 tune. Crew leader Luther Campbell sought clearance from the song's publisher, Acuff-Rose, but the company was not amused and refused permission. Undeterred, Campbell went ahead and released the song anyway.
The Verdict: The lighthearted 2 Live Crew song spawned a vicious legal battle that traveled through the judiciary system all the way to the Supreme Court. In March 1994, Campbell and the rest of the band were cleared of any wrongdoing once the justices ruled that "Pretty Woman" was a parody, and thus qualified for fair use.
Why It Matters: By expanding the definition of fair use, the Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. ruling served as an iron-clad defense for future artists wishing to express themselves through parody.
The Verve vs. The Rolling Stones (1997)
"Bitter Sweet Symphony," by the Verve (1997) vs. "The Last Time," by the Rolling Stones (written by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards) (1965)
The Case: The Verve had a major smash with their dreamy "Bittersweet Symphony." Vocalist Richard Ashcroft penned the song's lyrics, but the instrumental backing was partially sampled from a symphonic version of the Rolling Stones' song "The Last Time," recorded in 1965 by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra. The band had originally agreed to license a five-note segment of the recording in exchange for 50 percent of the royalties, but former Rolling Stones' manager Allen Klein claimed the Verve voided the agreement by using a larger section than they agreed to use. ABKCO Records, Klein's holding company, filed a plagiarism suit on behalf of himself and "The Last Time" songwriters Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
The Verdict: The Verve forfeited all of the songwriting royalties and publishing rights to ABKCO, and the song credit reverted to Jagger and Richards. "We were told it was going to be a 50/50 split," recalled Verve bassist Simon Jones. "Then they saw how well the record was doing. They rung up and said we want 100 percent or take it out of the shops, you don't have much choice."
Andrew Loog Oldham, another former Stones manager who owned the actual recording that was sampled, sued the band in 1999 for $1.7 million in mechanical royalties. In the end, the Verve lost all control of their biggest hit. It was used in a Nike commercial against their wishes, earning them no money and crushing their sense of artistic integrity. "I'm still sick about it," Ashcroft said in later years. The final insult came when "Bittersweet Symphony" was nominated for a "Best Song" Grammy – with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards named on the ballot.
Why It Matters: The saga of "Bittersweet Symphony" can either be viewed as a cautionary tale or one of the most unjust chapters in musical copyright history. Though the Verve sampled a cover of a Rolling Stones' song, it was a portion written by orchestra arranger David Whitaker – who was not credited on any of the recordings.
Robin Thicke vs. Marvin Gaye (2014)
"Blurred Lines," by Robin Thicke (cowritten by Pharrell) (2013) vs. "Got to Give It Up," by Marvin Gaye (1977)
The Case: In April 2014, the family of late soul singer Marvin Gaye filed a suit alleging that Robin Thicke's 2013 pop juggernaut "Blurred Lines" infringed on Gaye's 1977 funk-fueled "Got to Give It Up." In addition to Thicke, producer and cowriter Pharrell Williams, guest rapper T.I. and Universal Records were also named in the suit. The hearings were something of a tabloid spectacle, with Thicke coming clean about his Vicodin and alcohol abuse, and Williams becoming surly with prosecutors.
Verdict: T.I. was cleared in March 2015, but Thicke and Williams were not as lucky. A Los Angeles jury found them guilty of unlawfully copying "Got to Give It Up" and ordered the pair to pay the Gaye family $7.3 million. The judge later decreased the figure to $5.3 million, while awarding the Gayes 50 percent of the song's future royalties. It was one of the largest pay-outs in music-copyright history.
Why It Matters: Judging by the sheet music alone, "Got to Give It Up" and "Blurred Lines" are not remarkably similar. But in this case, studio arrangements were factored in. The strident walking bass, background chatter, even the cowbell — all were taken into account. The court ruled that "Blurred Lines" aped the vibe of Gaye's song, which is something that had previously been beyond copyright protection. Legal experts and artists alike fear that this sets a dangerous precedent. "The verdict handicaps any creator out there who is making something that might be inspired by something else," Pharrell said last year.
Mark Ronson vs. The Gap Band, the Sequence, Zapp and Collage (2015–2018)
“Uptown Funk” by Mark Ronson (feat. Bruno Mars) (2014) vs. “Oops Upside Your Head” by the Gap Band (1979), “Funk You Up” by the Sequence (1979), “More Bounce to the Ounce” by Zapp (1980), “Young Girls” by Collage (1983)
The Case: The release of Mark Ronson’s retro-tinged Bruno Mars vehicle in November 2014 signaled the start of a legal pile-on that continues to this day. The track’s co-composers – Ronson, Jeff Bhasker, Philip Lawrence and Peter Hernandez – acknowledged their debt to earlier work by offering credit to Trinidad James’ 2012 rap hit “All Gold Everything” prior to issuing the song, but that did little to stem the tide of legal briefs. By February 2015, Seventies funk heroes the Gap Band had filed a claim through Minder Music alleging copyright infringement on their 1979 track “Oops Upside Your Head.” The band’s co-founder, Charlie Wilson, fired a warning shot during an interview with WBLS in New York that spring, saying, “The musicologist came back and said it was ‘Oops Upside The Head’ and now they have to pay.”
Pioneering female rap trio the Sequence leveled accusations of their own in early 2016, citing their 1979 Sugar Hill Records single “Funk You Up,” from which they claimed Ronson & Co. borrowed “significant and substantially similar compositional elements” from the song’s hook. “Bruno Mars took the lyrics, the cadence and the melodies, and then they went and reached over to ‘Apache’ [the indelible 1981 Sugarhill Gang jam] and got ‘Jump on it/Jump on it,'” band member Angie Stone told Rolling Stone in 2017. “I’m like, OK, now y’all done did too much. We’re broke over here, OK? We need some money. We need some of that, because we created that!”
Also in 2016, Minneapolis electro-funk collective Collage charged the writers of “Uptown Funk” with coopting “the main instrumental attributes and themes” of their 1983 song, “Young Girl.” The resulting lawsuit sought unspecified damages and profits. Most recently, R&B collective Zapp filed a suit in New York’s U.S. District Court in September 2017, alleging that their 1980 proto-synth groove “More Bounce to the Ounce” is a crucial component to Ronson and Mars’ funky gumbo. According to a copy of the suit obtained by Billboard, the band’s publishing company is seeking damages of up to $150,000 per infringement, a permanent injunction against profiting from the alleged infringement, and a jury trial.
Verdict: While the majority of cases against Ronson for “Uptown Funk” are still pending, matters with the Gap Band were resolved out of court in the spring of 2015. Four Gap Band members – Charlie, Robert and Ronnie Wilson and Rudolph Taylor – as well as their producer, Lonnie Simmons, all received writing credits, earning them each 3.4 percent of the song.
Why It Matters: While speaking at a TED Talk in the spring of 2014, Ronson provided some insight into his creative process by noting that sampling was akin to riffing on blues progressions. “If you … copy without making it a carbon copy,” he told the audience, “it is original.” This belief, a common one among star producers, may be subject to change after the legal mayhem that greeted the initial success of “Uptown Funk.” Given that the song spent 14 weeks sitting at the top of Billboard and became the second best-selling digital single of all time, the cases against it represent perhaps the most high-profile takedown of a hit in the modern post-sampling era.
Lana Del Rey vs. Radiohead (2018)
“Get Free” by Lana Del Rey (co-written with Rick Nowels and Kieron Menzies) (2017) vs. “Creep” by Radiohead (1992)
The Case: The closing track on Del Rey’s 2017 album Lust for Life drew the attention of Radiohead’s representation, who apparently felt it sounded a little too much like the alt-rock band’s breakthrough smash. After rumors began to circulate in British press that a court battle was imminent, the singer confirmed the apparent lawsuit but denied any accusations of plagiarism. “Although I know my song wasn’t inspired by Creep, Radiohead feel it was and want 100% of the publishing,” she shared via Twitter on January 7th. “I offered up to 40 over the last few months but they will only accept 100. Their lawyers have been relentless, so we will deal with it in court.” Later that day, Del Rey told fans attending her concert in Denver that the song could be removed from future copies of Lust for Life if she and the plaintiffs fail to reach a compromise.
On January 9th, though, Radiohead issued a statement refuting the supposed suit. A rep for Warner/Chappell admits to talking with Del Rey’s team over the tracks, but says no legal action has been initiated. “As Radiohead’s music publisher, it’s true that we’ve been in discussions since August of last year with Lana Del Rey’s representatives,” the statement read. “It’s clear that the verses of ‘Get Free’ use musical elements found in the verses of ‘Creep’ and we’ve requested that this be acknowledged in favor of all writers of ‘Creep.’ To set the record straight, no lawsuit has been issued and Radiohead have not said they ‘will only accept 100 percent’ of the publishing of ‘Get Free.'”
Ironically, Radiohead themselves were accused of plagiarizing what has since become their signature song. Soon after “Creep” was released in 1992, the band was allegedly sued by Albert Hammond (father of Strokes guitarist Albert Hammond Jr.) and Mike Hazlewood over similarities to their song “The Air That I Breathe,” which had been a hit for the Hollies in 1974. The case was settled out of court, and today both Hammond and Hazlewood have a credit on the song.
Verdict: The case has yet to go to trial, and to date no settlement has been reached between the two parties.
Why It Matters: Some artists have spoken out against the potential suit, including English musician Owen Pallett, who alluded to the chord progression in question – commonly known as I-III-IV-iv – as being standard in popular music. Rather than blame Radiohead directly, he was quick to note “this just might be their lawyers being lawyers.”