“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.