7 times artists sued others for copying their music
16 October 2020, 15:28
Music has been around now for... well, quite a while. It's only a matter of time before we run out of tunes to create, surely.
Since the dawn of popular music, there have been various cases of artists thinking 'hang on, they've nicked my song!'.
In recent times, singer Lana Del Rey said that Radiohead had sued her for copyright infringement, while Led Zeppelin only just settled a long dispute that 'Stairway to Heaven' had plagiarised another band.
And it can be a costly experience - Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams had to pay Marvin Gaye's estate over $7 million after they were deemed to have stolen elements of one his tracks.
We've collected just a handful of some of the most famous cases from the history books. See whose side you are on for each...
1. George Harrison vs The Chiffons
George scored the first solo number one for a Beatle in 1970 with this song, but Chiffons songwriter Ronnie Mack noticed the similarities with the classic soul number.
Mack's publisher, Bright Tunes Music Corporation, filed a plagiarism lawsuit, but it didn't go to trial until 1976. In that time, The Chiffons even recorded their own version of 'My Sweet Lord'.
George claimed that he based the melody on the public-domain hymn 'Oh Happy Day', but admitted the similarity to 'He's So Fine'. The judge ruled that he was guilty of "subconscious plagiarism." He was initially ordered to pay $1.5m, but this was later lowered to $587,000.
"I don't feel guilty or bad about it," he later said. "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."
2. Rod Stewart vs Jorge Ben
Songs: 'Da Ya Think I'm Sexy?' vs 'Taj Mahal'
Rod was challenged over his famous disco hit by several people including his old pal Elton John (watch the video below to see them both joking about it.
Brazilian artist Jorge Ben sued Rod over the song, and agreed to give a percentage of the song’s proceeds to UNICEF. He later admitted: “I held my hand up straight away. Not that I’d stood in the studio and said, ‘Here, I know we’ll use that tune from Taj Mahal as the chorus. The writer lives in Brazil, he’ll never find out’.
“Clearly the melody had lodged itself in my memory and then resurfaced. Unconscious plagiarism, plain and simple.”
3. The Hollies vs Radiohead
Songs: 'The Air That I Breathe' vs 'Creep'
What makes the current potential lawsuit involving Lana Del Rey and Radiohead's 'Creep' even more interesting, is that Radiohead were already sued over the same song in the past.
Hollies fans noticed a likeness to Albert Hammond’s ballad 'The Air That I Breathe', which was covered by The Hollies in 1974.
Songwriters Hammond and Mike Hazelwood managed to successfully sue Radiohead, and are now credited as co-writers on 'Creep' and get a share of the royalties.
Hammond said: "Radiohead agreed that they had actually taken it. Because they were honest they weren't sued to the point of saying 'we want the whole thing'. So we ended up just getting a little piece of it."
4. Queen and David Bowie vs Vanilla Ice
Songs: 'Under Pressure' vs 'Ice Ice Baby'
The similarities between these two songs are obvious from the start. Rapper Vanilla Ice lifted Queen and Bowie's famous guitar riff as the bassline for his huge hit, but cheekily added an extra strum and figured he could get away with it.
A relatively early case of sampling without asking first, he later had to pay Queen and Bowie around £2.8m.
5. Huey Lewis and the News vs Ray Parker Jr
Songs: 'I Want a New Drug' vs 'Ghostbusters'
Huey knew exactly who to call when he first heard Ray Parker Jr's theme for Ghostbusters: his lawyer.
The frontman claimed that the song was suspiciously similar to his band's tune 'I Want A New Drug'.
They both settled out of court, and the terms were confidential until Huey appeared on VH1’s Behind the Music in 2001. Parker then sued Huey for breach of the confidentiality agreement. Yeesh.
6. Tom Petty vs Sam Smith
Songs: 'I Won't Back Down' vs 'Stay With Me'
While these two songs might have a different vibe, Tom Petty and co-writer Jeff Lynne got involved in a legal dispute with Sam Smith's team over the ballad.
A settlement agreed that Petty and Lynne would receive a 12.5% songwriting credit on the track. Petty's publisher contacted Smith's team after they noticed a likeness between the two songs.
Petty later said that he didn't personally believe that Smith copied him, saying: "All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam's people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement".
Smith said that he hadn't even heard of the song before he wrote his track, but acknowledged the similarities after listening to the song, describing it as as "a complete coincidence".
7. Marvin Gaye vs Ed Sheeran
Songs: 'Let's Get It On' vs 'Thinking Out Loud'
Marvin Gaye's estate had already successfully sued Robin Thicke, and now another one of his hits was the subject of a lawsuit - this time against Ed and his monster hit ballad 'Thinking Out Loud'.
In 2016, the family of Ed Townsend, who wrote 'Let's Get It On', sued Ed claiming "the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic compositions of 'Thinking' are substantially and/or strikingly similar to the drum composition of 'Let's'."
The case has yet to have an outcome, so it remains to be seen if Ed has to add Townsend as a songwriter on the track.