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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.

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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)

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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)

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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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