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Songs on Trial: 12 Landmark Music Copyright Cases

We look back at historic rulings from “Surfin’ U.S.A.” to “Blurred Lines”

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We run down 12 landmark copyright cases in music history, from the Beach Boys vs. Chuck Berry to Lana Del Rey vs. Radiohead.

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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 BieberEd 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.

Lana Del Rey vs. Radiohead (2018)

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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.”

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