The most famous copyright lawsuits in rock music history
The music industry can be a glamorous and tumultuous place. While artists can produce any number of songs, lyrics, melodies, and rhymes, Western music is actually only made up of twelve different notes. Since all music is influenced by experiences, periods of time, genres and songs from the past it’s no wonder inspiration and stealing can sometimes be confused.
Copyright infringement and cases of intellectual property have rocked artists from the Beach Boys to Led Zeppelin. Here are a few of the most famous copyright cases in music history. While many of these are still up for debate, it can seem almost impossible to determine who was blatantly stealing and who was merely using the wrong note at the wrong time.
Led Zeppelin vs. Willie Dixon
In 1972, Chicago blues artist Willie Dixon sued Led Zeppelin for copyright infringement over their song, “Bring It On Home,” and later the song, “Whole Lotta Love.” While both suits were eventually settled out of court for large sums of money, Led Zeppelin has made it no secret that their music is heavily influenced by the blues. Many fellow British artists of the time also pay homage to the blues in their classic rock songs. This was one of the first cases to dive deeper into their inspiration and demand some credit in ink.
Dixon was later credited as the writer of “Bring It On Home,” and was also added to the writing credits with Led Zeppelin on “Whole Lotta Love”.
George Harrison vs. Ronnie Mack and the Chiffons
As the first Beatle to rock a number one song on the Billboard charts with his song, “My Sweet Lord” in 1971 he was sued by Ronnie Mack’s publisher, Bright Tunes Music Corporation for plagiarism. Harrison’s song showed some similarities to the 1962 hit by the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine,” written by Ronnie Mack. The judge ruled that George Harrison was indeed guilty of subconscious plagiarism. This phrase had never been used before and paved the way for many new copyright infringement suits to come forth in the years to come.
With Harrison’s manager purchasing Bright Tunes Music and eventually selling the song to Harrison, the legal proceedings and payment didn’t finalize until 1998. This marked the longest music litigations in history.
The Beach Boys vs. Chuck Berry
In 1963, the Beach Boys released this classic “Surfin’ U.S.A.” to the world. While the Beach Boys had covered Chuck Barry’s songs in previous concerts before, songwriter and Beach Boy, Brian Wilson stated that he had written the song as a tribute to Barry. In Barry’s song “Sweet Little Sixteen,” he references several American cities and in Wilson’s song, he lists off surfing locations along the Pacific coast. Barry’s lawyers threatened a plagiarism lawsuit and the Beach Boys agreed to give publishing rights to Chuck Berry’s publisher, Arc Music.
In 1966, Chuck Berry was given songwriting credits on the infamous tune. This lawsuit was one of the first plagiarism cases of this magnitude in music history.
Ray Parker Jr. vs. Huey Lewis and the News
Ghostbusters producers sought out Huey Lewis and the News to originally write the film’s theme song in 1983. Huey Lewis at the time was currently under contract working on the Back to the Future soundtrack and had to decline the offer. Subsequently, the film’s producers reached out to Ray Parker Jr. to take on the project and told him to take a tone that was similar to that of Huey Lewis. Lewis eventually filed a lawsuit against Parker stating that his song, “I Want a New Drug” had a similar melody.
In 1995, Lewis and Parker settled outside of court with both agreeing not to discuss the suit in public. In 2001, Lewis broke the confidentiality agreement and shared the settlement publicly with VH1 for an episode of Behind the Music. Parker sued Lewis for doing so soon after.
Vanilla Ice vs. Queen and David Bowie
Most of us have heard both “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice and “Under Pressure,” by Queen and David Bowie and can hear the similar bass line. This case is interesting for many reasons. While Vanilla Ice claimed that the melodies were different because he added a different beat between the notes, Queen and David Bowie felt very differently and proposed a copyright infringement lawsuit. The case was eventually settled outside of court and all of the members of Queen and David Bowie were awarded songwriting credits to “Ice Ice Baby.” What makes this case particularly interesting is that in cases like this one, writers are given credit for partnerships that neither party actually agreed to. Now, when someone reads the credit of this song and many others, it would appear as though Vanilla Ice, Queen, and David Bowie all teamed up together to write this song when, in fact, they didn’t.
In a bizarre twist of events, Vanilla Ice now claims he owns the rights to “Under Pressure,” according to an interview he gave on the Dan Patrick Show.
Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams vs. Marvin Gaye
In 2014, Marvin Gaye’s family sued Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, rapper T.I. and Universal Records for copyright infringement. They reported that the song “Blurred Lines” copied portions of the song “Got to Give It Up,” by the late Marvin Gaye. In 2015, T.I. was cleared of all charges but Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were found guilty of unlawfully copying Gaye’s song.
The case marked one of the largest settlements in music history with a payout of $5.3 million and half of the song’s royalties in the future being awarded to the family of Marvin Gaye. Many in the industry feel this case will stifle the creativity of artists being inspired by artists before them.