Skip to main content

Enter your email below to be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Please enter a valid email address

By submitting my information, I agree to receive personalized updates and marketing messages about WMX based on my information, interests, activities, website visits and device data and in accordance with the Privacy Policy. I understand that I can opt-out at any time by emailing privacypolicy@wmg.com.

Copyright Lawsuits: The 10 Biggest Court Battles In Music History
In Depth

Copyright Lawsuits: The 10 Biggest Court Battles In Music History

Revealing a fine line between inspiration and plagiarism, these landmark copyright lawsuits have defined the course of music history.

Back

Have you ever been listening to a song for the first time, and sworn you’d heard it somewhere else before? Chances are, you probably have. Music is an art form in which musicians are continually inspired by each other’s work, adapting it in various ways. As some of the biggest copyright lawsuits in music history have shown, however, there is a fine line between inspiration and plagiarism. Here are ten landmark copyright lawsuits that have defined the course of popular music.

Chuck Berry vs The Beach Boys (1963)

Copyright lawsuits Chuck Berry Beach Boys

The songs

Sweet Little Sixteen (1958) and Surfin’ USA (1963)

The background

In 1963, The Beach Boys released Surfin’ USA, an instant classic that captured the optimistic essence of the West Coast surf scene. The song was, however, a lift of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen, with new lyrics written by Beach Boys Brian Wilson and Mike Love.

The legal case

Berry’s song was about a teenage girl who dreams of dancing her way across the American bandstands, listing the various cities she would “rock” around; The Beach Boys simply tweaked this idea and listed the various US beaches surfers were flocking to. One of the more overt cases of white popular music appropriating the sounds of black America, Brian Wilson has said he didn’t mean any harm with Surfin’ USA, and that the song – The Beach Boys’ first Top 5 US hit – was recorded in tribute to one of their rock’n’roll idols.

The verdict

When approached about the theft, The Beach Boys’ then manager (and Brian Wilson’s father), Murray Wilson, immediately gave Berry the copyright to the song in order to avoid a lawsuit. Berry now receives credit alongside Wilson for the tune.

Chuck Berry vs John Lennon (1973)

Copyright lawsuits Lennon Chuck Berry

The songs

You Can’t Catch Me (1956) and Come Together (1969)

The background

As one of the original rock’n’roll pioneers, Chuck Berry influenced everyone from Bob Dylan to The Rolling Stones. The Beatles made no secret of their love for him, covering Roll Over Beethoven on their second album, 1963’s With The Beatles, and returning to the Berry songbook again for Rock And Roll Music (on the following year’s Beatles For Sale album). By the end of the decade, however, they would find themselves on the end of one of their hero’s copyright lawsuits.

The legal case

While writing their 1969 song Come Together, John Lennon looked to Berry for inspiration, adapting a line from his 1956 single You Can’t Catch Me – “Here come a flat top/He was movin’ up with me” – for his own song’s opening lyric, “Here come old flat top/He come groovin’ up slowly”, and emphasising the same vowels as Berry when he sang it. Though, musically, Come Together was given a slower, funkier arrangement than You Can’t Catch Me, Berry’s publisher, Morris Levy, owner of Big Seven Music, started legal proceedings against Lennon, resulting in a serious of copyright lawsuits between both parties.

The verdict

Settling the initial dispute out of court, Lennon agreed as part of the deal to record three Big Seven Music songs on his next album. In the event, his 1975 album, Rock’n’Roll, only included two Big Seven Music tunes, a take on Lee Dorsey’s 1961 cut Ya Ya and a cover of the Chuck Berry song that started it all: You Can’t Catch Me. Once Levy noticed that Lennon – already in breach of their agreement – had given You Can’t Catch Me an arrangement that skirted closer to The Beatles’ Come Together than it did Berry’s original track, Levy again initiated legal proceedings, and the court awarded him $6,795.

The matter didn’t end there. While choosing songs to include on Rock’n’Roll, Lennon had sent Levy a tape of demo recordings, which Levy subsequently released through Big Seven Music as Roots: John Lennon Sings The Great Rock & Roll Hits. Inevitably, another round of copyright lawsuits flew as Lennon took Big Seven Music to court. Lennon, Capitol Records and EMI came away with $109,700 in lost royalties, while Lennon himself received a further $35,000 in compensation for damages.

The Chiffons vs George Harrison (1976)

Copyright lawsuits Harrison Chiffons

The songs

He’s So Fine (1963) and My Sweet Lord (1971)

The background

In 1971, George Harrison released his hit solo single My Sweet Lord, which, with its catchy rhythm guitar and lyrics concerning spiritual enlightenment (with a unique blend of typically Christian imagery with Hare Krishna chants), remained at No.1 for four consecutive weeks.

Harrison later said My Sweet Lord had been inspired by the two-chord progression of “Hallelujahs” The Edward Hawkins Singers’ sang on their version of the 18th-century hymn Oh Happy Day, but with My Sweet Lord riding high in the charts and receiving constant radio play, many noticed its similarity to The Chiffons’ 1963 US No.1, He’s So Fine.

The legal case

Lyrically, He’s So Fine evokes a youthful longing for one particularly good-looking guy. The fact that its musical DNA later became part of Harrison’s spiritual quest for God shows how the fundamentals of a timeless pop hit can find their way into other artists’ work – whether consciously or unconsciously.

One of the main determinants of copyright lawsuits is whether the artist had access to the original song. In George Harrison’s case, there was no doubt he had heard He’s So Fine: not only a huge hit in its own right, The Beatles had covered many black girl-group songs in their early days. Seeing a clear case, Bright Tunes Music Corporation, who owned the rights to The Chiffons’ song, started legal proceedings.

While Harrison’s then manager, Allen Klein, initially offered to buy the entirety of Bright Tunes’ catalogue, Bright Tunes felt more money could be made from the ex-Beatle if they went to court. After a four-year stalemate, the case went to trial in 1976, with Bright Eyes basing their evidence on musical motifs in He’s So Fine that were repeated in My Sweet Lord, notably “Motif A”, with which they proved Harrison had based the opening line of his song on the opening line of The Chiffons’ hit. Though performed in different keys, the notes and melodies in both songs are nearly identical. Harrison claimed this was a subconscious lift rather than an overt act of plagiarism.

The verdict

The case’s presiding judge, Richard Owen, of the US District Court in Manhattan, agreed: “Did Harrison deliberately use the music of He’s So Fine?” he asked, concluding, “I do not believe he did so deliberately. Nevertheless, it is clear that My Sweet Lord is the very same song as He’s So Fine with different words, and Harrison had access to He’s So Fine.” Harrison paid $1,599,987 in damages, later writing the sardonic This Song about the experience: “This song ain’t black or white and as far as I know/Don’t infringe on anyone’s copyright.” So far, no copyright lawsuits have emerged over that one…

Ronald Selle vs Bee Gees (1983)

Copyright lawsuits Bee Gees

The songs

Let It End (1975) and How Deep Is Your Love (1977)

The background

In 1975, antiques dealer and musician Ronald Selle wrote the song Let It End, which he subsequently copyrighted and sent to 14 music publishers, hoping it would be picked up. Three years later, Selle thought he heard a neighbour playing it. Turns out it was Bee Gees’ 1977 hit How Deep Is Your Love – a song Selle felt was too similar to Let It End to be a coincidence.

The legal case

Selle sued Bee Gees, their record label, RSO, and film studio Paramount Pictures, who had featured the song in Saturday Night Fever. The case was brought in front of a jury at the Northern Illinois’ US District Court in 1983, with Selle’s main evidence being a musical analysis performed by a professor of music at Northwestern University, Dr Arrand Parsons.

Though an accomplished music theorist, Parsons had never compared works of popular music. In comparing the first eight measures of each song, however, he concluded that, out of 34 notes in Let It End and 40 notes in How Deep Is Your Love, 24 matched in pitch, while 35 were identical in rhythm. Selle’s legal team tried to frame the similarities as significant enough to “rule out the possibility of independent creation”.

In their defence, Bee Gees provided a demo of How Deep Is Your Love which offered insight into the 1977 writing session that resulted in the song. Perhaps the most dramatic turn of events was during Maurice Gibb’s deposition. Asked to identify an excerpt of a song provided by Selle’s legal team, the singer mistakenly claimed it was from How Deep Is Your Love, when it actually came from Let It End.

The verdict

The jury determined that Bee Gees did infringe Selle’s copyright, but Judge George N Leighton nullified their decision, granting the group a “judgement notwithstanding” verdict. Though Bee Gees couldn’t prove they didn’t have access to Selle’s song, Selle’s team were equally unable to prove they did. The court ultimately ruled in favour of Bee Gees, setting a precedent for future copyright lawsuits when they stated that “evidence of access must extend beyond mere speculation”.

Creedence Clearwater Revival vs John Fogerty (1985)

Copyright lawsuits Creedance Fogerty

The songs

Run Through The Jungle (1970) and The Old Man Down The Road (1985)

The background

John Fogerty being sued for sounding too much like John Fogerty is one of the more bizarre copyright lawsuits in music history. In 1970, Creedence Clearwater Revival released the anti-Vietnam War song Run Through The Jungle, written by Fogerty with a clear influence from Bo Diddley’s Bring It To Jerome. Over a decade later, Fogerty’s third solo album, 1985’s Centrefield, opened with a song called The Old Man Down The Road, and the songwriter suddenly found himself with a lawsuit from his old label.

The legal case

Fantasy Records, which owned the copyright for Run Through The Jungle, sued the former CCR frontman for copyright infringement, believing that Fogerty had merely changed the lyrics to the 1970 song. In the witness stand, however, Fogerty played sections of both songs, illustrating that they were entirely different works that fit his signature swamp-rock style.

The verdict

The Ninth Circuit Court For The Central District Of California ruled in Fogerty’s favour, but though Fogerty won, he racked up $1.09 million in legal fees while defending himself. The only way he could seek reimbursement was if he proved that Fantasy’s lawsuit was made in bad faith, or that it was frivolous. After Fogerty’s appeal was denied by the Ninth Circuit, it appeared before the Supreme Court in Fogerty v Fantasy, Inc.

The 1976 Copyright Act states that a winning party “may” be awarded attorney fees at the discretion of the district courts. Since the act was meant to promote and protect an artist’s creations, not stifle creativity, the Supreme Court ruled in favour of Fogerty.

Queen and David Bowie vs Vanilla Ice (Ice Ice Baby) (1990)

Copyright lawsuits Queen Vanilla Ice

The songs

Under Pressure (1981) and Ice Ice Baby (1990)

The background

With arguably one of the most famous basslines in history, Under Pressure made a lasting impact in both pop and hip-hop music when it was sampled by Vanilla Ice in the 1990 song Ice Ice Baby.

The iconic collaboration between David Bowie and Queen was largely an exercise in improvisation that resulted in not only one of the best David Bowie songs, but one of the best Queen songs, too. There is, however, some debate over the creation of its defining bassline, with each musician remembering it differently: John Deacon, Queen’s bassist, told a Japanese magazine in 1982 that the riff was Bowie’s creation, while more recent recollections by drummer Roger Taylor and guitarist Brian May claim it was Deacon’s. The story goes that Deacon had played the bass riff repeatedly throughout the studio sessions but, after breaking for dinner, he had forgotten it. Brian May has clarified that Bowie inadvertently changed the riff from “six notes the same, then one note a fourth down” to the classic we now know today.

Released in 1981, Under Pressure topped the UK charts and, at the close of the 80s, inspired a new generation of artists, with hip-hop one-hit wonder Vanilla Ice sampling the bassline for the foundation of Ice Ice Baby. That, however, is where the similarities between the two songs end. Under Pressure looked at the pressures of modern society and giving love a chance, while Ice Ice Baby was a piece of playful self-aggrandisement that became the first hip-hop single to top the Billboard Hot 100 – and, ultimately, a high-profile case in a history of copyright lawsuits that have challenged the legality of sampling.

The legal case

Vanilla Ice defended his sample by saying that he made the riff his own when he added a single note at the end. Clearly not different enough: Queen and Bowie sued Vanilla Ice for the unauthorised use of their music.

The verdict

A landmark in the history of copyright lawsuits, the two parties settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, but Vanilla Ice recently revealed that buying the copyright to the song himself was actually cheaper than fighting the case in court. So that’s exactly what he did.

Roy Orbison vs 2 Live Crew (1994)

Copyright lawsuits Orbison 2 Live Crew

 

The songs

Oh, Pretty Woman (1964) and Pretty Woman (1989)

The background

Co-written with Bill Dees, Roy Orbison’s Oh, Pretty Woman is one of the defining hits of the early 60s; three decades later, it found itself at the centre of one of the most contentious copyright lawsuits in history, after it was parodied by 2 Live Crew’s 1989 track, Pretty Woman. Whereas Orbison’s original chronicled the relatable plot of a man seeing a pretty woman, falling in love, having an argument and then getting back together, the controversial hip-hop crew used its tune as the basis for a song describing a “big hairy woman” and a “bald-headed woman”.

The legal case

2 Live Crew had initially reached out to Acuff-Rose Music, Inc, owner of the original copyright, asking for authorisation to use Oh, Pretty Woman, and offering copyright credits and royalties in return. Acuff-Rose denied their request, but, believing they were protected under the “fair use” doctrine, 2 Live Crew went ahead and released Pretty Woman anyway, on their 1989 album As Clean As They Wanna Be. Though it was clearly a bawdy departure from the original, Acuff-Rose sued.

The verdict

In law, the “fair use” policy allows for limited use of copyrighted material for criticism, news reporting, teaching and parody. While the Federal District Court in Nashville, Tennessee, ruled in favour of 2 Live Crew, the Sixth Circuit Court Of Appeals reversed the ruling, declaring that Pretty Woman was a commercial exploit for profit and therefore could not be considered under the “fair use” terms. 2 Live Crew main man Luke Campbell, however, fought back: parody and satire were protected under the First Amendment; comedy shows like Saturday Night Live were founded on both; and parody artist “Weird Al” Yankovic, then at the height of his fame, had never received any copyright lawsuits. Campbell felt 2 Live Crew’s song was in the same tradition

The case ultimately landed in the US Supreme Court, which, in Campbell v Acuff-Rose, ruled in favour of 2 Live Crew, upholding the precedent that parody is protected under fair use.

The Rolling Stones vs The Verve (1997)

Copyright lawsuits The Verve Rolling Stones

The songs

The Last Time (1965) and Bitter Sweet Symphony (1997)

The background

The Verve’s 1997 single Bitter Sweet Symphony not only boasted one of the best music videos in history, it featured a timeless melody, thanks to its sample of an orchestral version of The Rolling Stones’ 1965 song The Last Time – a decision that resulted in one of the most complex copyright lawsuits in music.

Itself inspired by The Staple Singers’ 1954 recording of a traditional gospel spiritual, This May Be The Last Time, the Stones’ song was credited to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, despite the fact that the original song’s history went back decades. The Stones also stamped their authority on the more psychedelicised orchestral adaptation that David Whittaker arranged for The Andrew Oldham Orchestra.

The legal case

Due to the fact that The Verve sampled a cover version, they didn’t obtain the Stones’ permission to use The Last Time, though a lawsuit from the late Allen Klein, who owned ABKCO, the label that released all the Stones’ early material, argued otherwise.

The verdict

With Klein’s lawsuit proving successful, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards received a songwriting credit for Bitter Sweet Symphony, while all the royalties for the song went to ABKCO. The Stones’ former manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, then launched his own lawsuit, as he owned the copyright on The Andrew Oldham Orchestra’s orchestral recording of The Last Time.

Two decades later, Jagger and Richards agreed to take their names off the credits. The case shows how repurposing one old song can inadvertently lead to copyright lawsuits from multiple plaintiffs.

Marvin Gaye vs Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams (2014)

Copyright lawsuits Gaye Thicke

The songs

Got To Give It Up (1971) and Blurred Lines (2013)

The background

One of the most high-profile copyright lawsuits in recent times was between the estate of Marvin Gaye, pop star Robin Thicke and hip-hop legend Pharrell Williams. Released as a single in March 1977, Gaye’s Got To Give it Up topped three different Billboard charts, including the R&B and Hot 100 listings, and was about a shy man who finds a woman to help him dance. Blurred Lines, on the other hand, was widely interpreted as a song that questioned interpretations of consent and rape; one of the most controversial songs of the 2010s, it was banned by many student universities in the UK.

The legal case

A quick listen to Blurred Lines reveals a similar party atmosphere and instrumentation to Gaye’s earlier hit, resulting in a turbulent trial between the two parties. Filed in 2014, the case went to court in March the following year, but took three years to resolve. Gaye’s representative musicologist, Judith Finell, detailed a number of similarities between the songs, including the ten-note melody that underpins Gaye’s lyric “I used to go out to parties” and Thicke’s line “And that’s why I’m gon’ take a good girl”. Finell also outlined resemblances between the instrumentation, the “distinctive falsetto” and the use of “party noises” that define both songs.

The verdict

The jury found Thicke and Williams guilty of copyright infringement, initially rewarding the Gaye estate with $7.4 million (eventually reduced to $5.3 million) and half the royalties from Blurred Lines. In 2016, Thicke and Williams’ legal team appealed against the ruling, arguing before the Ninth Circuit Court For The Central District Of California that Finell had presented “unprotectable” elements of the music to the jury, wrongfully swaying their opinion. These elements included anything that was not present on the original sheet music deposited with the US Copyright Office, which led the team to claim that any sound recordings used in the case were void.

In 2018, the court maintained their ruling in favour of Gaye’s estate, handing down a final judgement of $4.98 million in damages, as well as interest on the owed amount, and 50 per cent of all future royalties acquired from Blurred Lines. A landmark verdict among copyright lawsuits, the Blurred Lines case has established a new legal precedent in which copyright-infringement cases can be based not just on a song’s musical score, but on its groove and overall vibe.

Spirit vs Led Zeppelin (2014)

Copyright lawsuits Led Zeppelin Spirit

The songs

Taurus (1968) and Stairway To Heaven (1971)

The background

Though, like many rock’n’roll icons before them (not least The Rolling Stones), Led Zeppelin openly adapted blues standards for some of their own early songs, the case surrounding Stairway To Heaven came from an entirely different source: late 60s rockers Spirit, who felt that Jimmy Page’s opening arpeggios were directly lifted from their 1968 song Taurus.

The legal case

The difficulty in proving the claim lay with some of the fundamentals of music theory, specifically within jazz and blues music. Page’s descending arpeggios are a musical transition known as a “line cliché”, which can be used to embellish a chord or establish a harmonic movement. Spirit’s Taurus is an instrumental piece centred around the line cliché, which is played and mirrored on various instruments, similarly to the way in which Stairway To Heaven prominently features its defining motif on guitar and flute – until the final verse, at which point it develops into a hard rock song.

Notably, Led Zeppelin supported Spirit on tour in 1969, and performed Spirit’s song Fresh-Garbage (which opened the self-titled album Taurus appeared on) live, so it’s clear that Led Zeppelin had access to Taurus. But while the two introductions may share similarities, Stairway To Heaven is a long narrative song which, both lyrically and musically, unfolds along a path to enlightenment.

The verdict

In 2016, the San Francisco Ninth District Court Of Appeals ruled in favour of Led Zeppelin. Though Spirit’s estate filed a petition against the decision, the US Supreme Court refused to hear the case. In 2020, After a six-year, battle, Led Zeppelin finally secured a legal victory, in one of the longest-running copyright lawsuits in music history.

More Like This

Very: How Pet Shop Boys Became New Cultural Stakeholders
In Depth

Very: How Pet Shop Boys Became New Cultural Stakeholders

Pet Shop Boys’ most successful album, ‘Very’ was released against the backdrop of a health crisis that was decimating the LGBTQ+ community.

The Gold Experience: Behind Prince’s Richest Album Of The 90s
In Depth

The Gold Experience: Behind Prince’s Richest Album Of The 90s

Released during a fractious period in his life, ‘The Gold Experience’ remains a vital part of Prince’s treasured body of work.

Sign up to our newsletter

Be the first to hear about new releases, upcoming events, and more from Dig!

Sign Up