The biggest copyright lawsuits in music history
You’d think that with 12 notes that can be combined in infinite variations, the odds of an artist plagiarizing a song would be slim. Though endless rhythms and melodies are possible, more and more copyright cases are emerging every year. Some of the biggest names in music today have been accused of cribbing their tunes, and many of them have been forced to pay up big-time. From iconic black artists suing the rockers who ripped them off to the obscure SoundCloud singer trying to take on Lady Gaga, let’s check out some of the biggest and most interesting music copyright lawsuits of all time.
1. Gordon Jenkins vs. Johnny Cash
Though he’s little known now, in the 1940s, Gordon Jenkins was one of the biggest names in pop. He worked as a songwriter and producer for some of the greatest singers of the time, including Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Frank Sinatra, and Nat King Cole. However, a song he wrote in 1953 wound up finding a new life he never expected.
“Folsom Prison Blues” is one of Johnny Cash’s most enduring tunes, but it turns out he lifted the song’s melody and a good chunk of the lyrics from Jenkins’ song, “Crescent City Blues.” Jenkins sued for copyright infringement, and Cash was ordered to pay him $100,000 cash.
NEXT: These California rockers admitted to stealing this hit from the Father of Rock ’n’ Roll.
2. Chuck Berry vs. The Beach Boys
As one of the pioneers of guitar-driven rock music, Chuck Berry stands as one of the most influential guitarists of the 20th century. He may also be among the most ripped off. While most acts are content to swipe a guitar riff here and a solo lick there, one band actually stole an entire Chuck Berry song.
The Beach Boys wrote their hit, “Surfin’ USA,” using Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” as a blueprint. To avoid a lawsuit, Beach Boys manager Murray Wilson gave Berry the copyright to “Surfin’ USA.” He neglected to tell the band, however, who only discovered that they didn’t hold the rights decades later when they began to wonder why they never saw any royalties from it.
NEXT: These hard-partying blues rockers stole their way into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame.
3. Willie Dixon vs. Led Zeppelin
Since they formed in 1968, Led Zeppelin has put out some of the most legendary rock records of all time. Their signature blues-driven sound has also been useful for keeping their lawyers very, very busy. Over the years, Led Zeppelin has been accused of stealing beats, guitar parts, and lyrics, and they’re still involved in a lawsuit in 2019.
One of the earliest cases filed against Led Zeppelin came from Willie Dixon. Dixon wrote the Muddy Waters song “You Need Love” in 1962. The Zeppelin song “Whole Lotta Love” quotes whole passages from Dixon’s song. The case was settled out of court, and Dixon is now listed as a songwriter on “Whole Lotta Love,” allowing him access to royalties from the song.
NEXT: That’s one down, but we’ve got two more Led Zeppelin cases to go.
4. Jake Holmes vs. Led Zeppelin
Jake Holmes released a little ditty called “Dazed and Confused” on his 1967 album The Above Ground Sound of Jake Holmes. Funnily enough, in 1969, Led Zeppelin released a song by the same name with the exact same melody, only reworking the lyrics. It turns out, Holmes had opened for Jimmy Page’s prior band, The Yardbirds, and the song stuck with him, though he has publicly denied ever hearing it.
For many years, Holmes graciously declined to sue over the obvious theft — until 2010, when he finally decided to “let them have it.” His case was settled out of court, and he is now rightfully listed as one of the song’s writers.
NEXT: This last Led Zeppelin lawsuit really makes me wonder …
5. Spirit vs. Led Zeppelin
As of 2019, Led Zeppelin continues to be involved in one more copyright infringement case. This time, they face allegations that they stole one of their most famous instrumental parts from a small, relatively unknown instrumental band from the ’60s.
The estate of guitarist Randy Wolfe claims that Led Zeppelin stole his song “Taurus” and repackaged it as the perennial Guitar Center showroom earworm, “Stairway to Heaven.” In 2016, a jury ruled that the songs weren’t that similar, but in 2018, a federal appeals court overturned that ruling. No matter how the court ultimately rules, we hope Zep has learned their lesson about stealing.
NEXT: This “sweet” song landed a former Beatle in hot water.
6. Ronnie Mack and The Chiffons vs. George Harrison
Formerly relegated to pitching in a mere song or two per Beatles album, in 1970, George Harrison released “My Sweet Lord.” The song made him the first member of the Beatles to hit No. 1 on the charts with a solo song. However, Harrison wouldn’t ride the high of his success for long.
Just a few months after its release, the publisher for The Chiffons filed a lawsuit against Harrison citing his song’s similarities to the 1963 hit, “He’s So Fine.” In 1976, a judge ruled that Harrison had subconsciously plagiarized the song. Later in his memoir, Harrison wrote, “When my version of the song came out and started to get a lot of airplay, people started talking about it, and it was then I thought, ‘Why didn’t I realize?’ It would have been very easy to change a note here or there, and not affect the feeling of the record.”
NEXT: George wasn’t the only Beatle with copyright issues.
7. Chuck Berry vs. John Lennon
“Come Together,” with its slow, thumping bass line, is one of the most instantly recognizable songs in the Beatles’ catalog. However, the song was directly plagiarized from Chuck Berry’s 1956 song, “You Can’t Catch Me.” The lawsuit alleged that Lennon’s “Come Together” had merely slowed down the music of the original and borrowed some of its lyrics.
The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount. As part of the settlement, Lennon agreed to record three more songs from the Berry catalog for his next record. He was sued again when he only recorded two. Lennon was found in breach of contract and had to pay $6,795.
NEXT: In one of the strangest copyright cases ever, this musician was sued for sounding too much like himself.
8. Creedence Clearwater Revival vs. John Fogerty
This mid-’80s copyright case remains one of the weirdest tales in music history. It seems that John Fogerty, the former frontman of Creedence Clearwater Revival, had a bad breakup with the band. For years after the split, he refused to play any CCR songs in his solo shows. Then, when he released the single “The Old Man Down the Road,” something crazy happened.
Fantasy, Inc., the label that owned CCR’s catalog, accused him of ripping off his earlier hit, “Run Through the Jungle.” Though the songs were rhythmically similar, the jury ruled that Fogerty had not plagiarized himself. He later claimed that he had spent $400,000 more than the song ever made defending himself in court, countersued, and won.
NEXT: This disco rip-off remains a guilty pleasure.
9. Jorge Ben vs. Rod Stewart
Rod Stewart’s “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” is an iconic-yet-cringey jam. However, Stewart didn’t actually write the melody himself. It turns out that he lifted it from Brazilian samba king Jorge Ben. While on a bender at Carnival with Freddie Mercury and Elton John, Stewart heard Ben’s “Taj Mahal” blaring at all the discos.
The tune stuck with him and came out when he went into the studio to improvise “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” The case was settled out of court, with Stewart and Ben both agreeing to donate all the royalties from the song to UNICEF. Talk about a classy resolution!
NEXT: He wasn’t afraid of no ghosts, but he should have been afraid of copyright law.
10. Huey Lewis and the News vs. Ray Parker Jr.
Who you gonna call? If you’re Huey Lewis and the News and the movie Ghostbusters just came out, the answer is your lawyer. The producers of Ghostbusters approached Ray Parker Jr. to write the movie’s theme song, and gave him “I Want a New Drug” by Huey Lewis as an inspiration track. Parker would take more than just inspiration.
He ripped the bass line and guitar part right off and used them in his theme for Ghostbusters. Huey Lewis and the News sued for $5 million and settled out of court. Later, the movie’s producers sued Parker again for violating their confidentiality agreement. Parker’s legal situation was scarier than a giant Stay Puft Marshmallow Man!
NEXT: This landmark copyright case had a rapper “Under Pressure.”
11. Queen and David Bowie vs. Vanilla Ice
Imagine having the guts to outright steal from Queen and David Bowie in one fell swoop! Vanilla Ice, early ’90s rapper and current star of the home renovation reality show The Vanilla Ice Project, did just that. Ice’s 1989 hit “Ice Ice Baby” clearly lifted the bass line from the 1981 Queen and David Bowie collaboration “Under Pressure.”
The case was settled out of court, and Ice paid for his thievery in icy cold cash and public ridicule. He famously claimed that he had added a beat in between two of the notes, rendering it a new and unique bass line. However, nobody could really hear what on Earth he was talking about, and his defense was roundly mocked.
NEXT: This Britpop band wasn’t shy about stealing a soda jingle.
12. The New Seekers vs. Oasis
Perhaps best known for feuding brothers Noel and Liam Gallagher, the band Oasis often welcomed bad publicity and controversy. They also weren’t afraid to blatantly steal songs, as they proved with “Shakermaker.” This song uses the melody and some of the lyrics from The New Seekers’ 1971 song, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing (In Perfect Harmony).”
That song, in turn, had begun its life as a jingle for Coca-Cola. The New Seekers sued Oasis for infringement and won $400,000. In later versions of the album, the final verse containing New Seekers’ lyrics has been cut from the song.
NEXT: Another Britpop band ran into trouble even after asking for permission.
13. The Rolling Stones vs. The Verve
“Bitter Sweet Symphony” by The Verve was inescapable in 1997, due in large part to the song’s prominent placement in the hit teen movie Cruel Intentions. However, thanks to a copyright dustup, The Verve didn’t start to see royalties from their one big hit until 2019. Here’s what went down.
“Bitter Sweet Symphony” sampled an orchestral recording of The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.” Though The Verve got permission to sample the tune when their version came out, the Stones realized the young band had taken a larger sample than was agreed upon. The Verve gave Mick Jagger and Keith Richards songwriters’ credits and were sued by the Stones’ publisher for $1.7 million in royalties. And that’s why you should always follow your contracts to a T.
NEXT: This hip-hop trio ran into legal trouble over sampling as well.
14. The Turtles vs. De La Soul
When hip-hop pioneers De La Soul came on to the scene, there was little precedent for the idea of clearing samples. Crate-digging emcees simply used whatever they found to create something new. However, for De La Soul, this strategy backfired.
In 1991, they were sued by ’60s pop band The Turtles for using a sample of “You Showed Me.” The case was settled out of court for $1.7 million. Due to the high number of uncleared samples that still exist on De La Soul’s early work, the group has struggled to get their label to add their back catalog to streaming services. In 2014, they made their first albums available to fans for free as a way of getting around having to pay royalties.
NEXT: This case pitted a guitar legend against some soft-rock superstars, and nobody won.
15. Joe Satriani vs. Coldplay
In 2008, teacher-to-the-stars-turned-virtuoso-instrumental-guitarist Joe Satriani filed a suit against the British band Coldplay, claiming that their “Viva La Vida” had ripped off his instrumental, “If I Could Fly.” He would drop the case the next year after the argument turned rather embarrassing for both parties.
Satriani’s lawyers alleged that Coldplay had taken “substantial original portions” of his work. Coldplay’s lawyers fired back that Satriani’s song was so unoriginal that it didn’t deserve copyright protection. Of course, logically you could apply this statement right back to Coldplay. Luckily for both parties, at this point, Satriani withdrew his suit.
NEXT: This famous case blurred the lines of copyright infringement.
16. Marvin Gaye vs. Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams
Robin Thicke’s 2013 hit “Blurred Lines” courted controversy from the beginning with its sexually charged music video and lyrics. However, it made the biggest stir in court. The estate of the late soul legend Marvin Gaye sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, claiming that “Blurred Lines” infringed on Gaye’s song, “Got to Give It Up.”
Though Pharrell and Thicke claimed that they had not intentionally plagiarized Gaye’s work, the court didn’t see it that way. They were ordered to pay Gaye’s estate $5.3 million and half of the song’s royalties. Following this high-profile case, a number of other similar infringement cases began popping up in court.
NEXT: This early rapper fought back against one of the biggest pop groups in the world.
17. Lynn Tolliver vs. The Black Eyed Peas
Lynn Tolliver is the Cleveland-based DJ and rapper best known for his 1983 single, “I Need a Freak.” Even if you’re not familiar with his funky, underground sound, odds are you’ve had a taste, thanks to The Black Eyed Peas. The Black Eyed Peas got permission from a former collaborator of Tolliver’s to use a sample of “I Need a Freak” in their song “My Humps.”
However, Tolliver himself never cleared the sample. He sued the collaborator, James McCants, and was awarded over $800,000 in profits and over $350,000 in damages for a grand total of nearly $1.2 million. Now that’s a big hump of money!
NEXT: This song bears a creeping similarity to a ’90s alt-rock classic.
18. Radiohead vs. Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey has crafted her art from a melancholy pastiche of Americana, but this time it seems she took her penchant for borrowing references a bit too far. On her 2017 album Lust for Life, Lana closed with a song called “Get Free” that sent up red flags for Radiohead’s lawyers.
Parts of the song share a melody with Radiohead’s 1993 ballad, “Creep.” Though Lana adds her signature vocal embellishments, the tune is unmistakably similar. Lana tweeted that Radiohead’s lawyers were demanding 100% songwriting credit for the song. In 2018, she said that the case was over, having been privately settled.
NEXT: Plot twist: This isn’t the first copyright case involving “Creep.”
19. The Hollies vs. Radiohead
Over a decade before accusing Lana Del Rey of copying them, Radiohead themselves had their authorship of “Creep” called into question. The British band The Hollies sued Radiohead for copyright infringement, claiming that “Creep” had used elements of their 1974 song, “The Air That I Breathe.”
The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed sum. Additionally, Hollies songwriters Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood are now listed as songwriters for Radiohead’s “Creep.” To be fair to all the songwriters involved, the songs all share an extremely common pop music chord progression, so it’s understandable that it could be rewritten three times. We can’t wait to hear who will write it next!
NEXT: This “uptown” song ran into quadruple trouble in court.
20. The Gap Band, The Sequence, Zapp, and Collage vs. Mark Ronson
Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk” absolutely dominated the charts in 2014, but unfortunately for its writer, legal issues would overshadow the song’s success. “Uptown Funk” was written by producer Mark Ronson, best known for his retro-tinged work with artists like Amy Winehouse. However, four separate groups came forward claiming Ronson stole more than just a vibe from their work.
A series of lawsuits were filed against Ronson claiming that he had lifted substantial portions of songs by The Gap Band, The Sequence, Zapp, and Collage. Ronson had also added songwriters in an attempt to preempt copyright lawsuits. As of this writing, “Uptown Funk” has 11 names listed in its songwriting credits, and more litigation is pending.
NEXT: This ginger-haired crooner ran into trouble with copyright law over a photograph.
21. Matt Cardle vs. Ed Sheeran
Ed Sheeran’s soft single “Photograph” made a splash on the American charts, but not without controversy in the singer’s home country of England. Former X Factor winner Matt Cardle filed a $20 million lawsuit against Sheeran accusing him of ripping off his 2012 song, “Amazing.”
The complaint said Sheeran and his collaborator Johnny McDaid of Snow Patrol had “copied and exploited, without authorization or credit, the work of other active, professional songwriters on a breathtaking scale.” According to the complaint, roughly half of “Photograph” had been clearly taken from “Amazing.” The case was settled out of court.
NEXT: The strange case of a hard-rock band versus a fast-food chain.
22. Slipknot vs. Burger King
Burger King’s mid-2000s ad for their new “chicken fries” got attention for more than the brand’s bold decision to combine Americans’ love of chicken and fries into a new and innovative snack-food experience. In an attempt to reach a younger demographic, Burger King’s ad featured a fictional metal band called Coq Roq.
However, when real hard rockers Slipknot saw the commercial, they filed a suit against the fast-food monarch. Apparently, Coq Roq’s costumes looked a bit too much like the ones Slipknot wore in their performances. The case was ultimately dropped, but will always be remembered as one of the strangest copyright cases ever.
NEXT: The one where pretty much everyone sued Spotify.
23. Wixen Music Publishing vs. Spotify
Streaming music’s model for compensating artists, songwriters, and publishers has been under lots of scrutiny lately. In large part, this attention comes from a 2017 lawsuit filed by Wixen Music Publishing against the streaming giant. Wixen represents tons of big-name artists, including Taylor Swift, Tom Petty, Neil Young, and Stevie Nicks.
Wixen sued Spotify for $1.6 billion, claiming that the platform had used Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’” and about 10,000 of the other songs in their publishing catalog without license or compensation. The case was settled out of court in 2018, but the battle over streaming royalties rages on.
NEXT: This long-haired crooner wound up losing his case in court.
24. The Isley Brothers vs. Michael Bolton
In 1991, power balladeer and possessor of luscious locks, Michael Bolton, was on top of the charts with his single “Love Is a Wonderful Thing.” However, according to The Isley Brothers, Bolton’s ballad was a clear rip-off of their 1966 song of the same name. Bolton strongly denied any similarities between the two songs, but he was ultimately ordered to pay up.
Based on evidence from a musicologist, a jury ruled that Bolton’s song did, in fact, infringe on the copyright of the Isleys. The Isleys were awarded $4.2 million as a result of the case, which dragged on in court for nine years.
NEXT: Could a star be born as a result of this lawsuit? Probably not …
25. Steve Ronsen vs. Lady Gaga
Lady Gaga’s “Shallow,” from the 2018 remake of A Star Is Born, has been accused of being a remake itself. A small independent songwriter, Steve Ronsen, filed a lawsuit against the pop superstar accusing her of outright stealing for using the same three-chord progression found in his song. When his case was first filed, the song had been played less than 300 times on SoundCloud.
Ronsen is reportedly seeking a multimillion-dollar settlement. Lady Gaga’s lawyers, on the other hand, have called the case “a brazen shakedown” and say that their client absolutely did not copy this unknown song. Only time will tell how this unlikely case will shake out.
NEXT: This songwriter heard similarities and didn’t “back down.”
26. Tom Petty vs. Sam Smith
Sam Smith’s soulful 2014 hit “Stay With Me” succeeded in large part because of a catchy, familiar-feeling hook in the chorus. It turns out that sequence felt familiar because we had, in fact, heard it many times before. Tom Petty’s team heard it and immediately realized the chorus sounded just like “I Won’t Back Down.”
Smith has publicly said he hadn’t heard Petty’s song before, calling the similarities a coincidence. Professional musicologists called on to analyze the similarities between the two songs agreed that there was a great deal of overlap between the two. Smith has since given Petty a 25% songwriting credit.
NEXT: Marvin Gaye’s estate sued another artist we’ve seen before on this list.
27. Marvin Gaye vs. Ed Sheeran
Following the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit, Marvin Gaye’s estate has filed another suit, this time against Ed Sheeran. This new case claims that Sheeran stole the “same melody, rhythms, harmonies, drums, bassline, backing chorus, tempo, syncopation and looping,” found in Gaye’s 1973 hit, “Let’s Get It On,” as the basis for his Grammy-winning song “Thinking Out Loud.”
The case is scheduled to go to trial in late 2019, though as with many cases of this nature, there is still a possibility that it will be settled out of court. Sheeran has said publicly that he believes the similarities between the two songs are a result of common tropes, but only time will tell what the courts decide.
NEXT: In this case, a Christian rapper took on a pop diva and won.
28. Flame vs. Katy Perry
Bubblegum-pop queen Katy Perry grew up singing gospel and switched to pop when her career in Christian music fell through. That’s just one of the reasons why Christian rapper Flame claimed Perry had to have heard his song “Joyful Noise” before. Flame sued Perry in 2014 over similarities between his track and her 2013 hit, “Dark Horse.”
Though Perry denied having heard Flame’s song before, a musicologist gave evidence in the case that showed the beat of her song was incredibly similar to “Joyful Noise.” A jury ruled that it was copyright infringement and awarded the win to Flame.
NEXT: This group dodged infringement thanks to special exceptions for parodies.
29. Roy Orbison vs. 2 Live Crew
Raunchy rappers 2 Live Crew actually found themselves pleading their case before the Supreme Court thanks to their racy parody of the Roy Orbison song “Pretty Woman.” Though Orbison had already passed away at the time of the lawsuit, his publisher Acuff-Rose brought a suit against 2 Live Crew for their version of “Pretty Woman.”
After winding its way through the courts, the case ultimately ended up before the Supreme Court. The Court ruled in favor of 2 Live Crew, who were supported in the case by National Lampoon and MAD Magazine. In their decision, the Court wrote that because the song did satirize the original, it was a case of fair use.
NEXT: This artist actually sued his own fans in this totally bizarre case.
30. Prince vs. His fans
The artist formerly known as Prince was notoriously protective of his creative work, image, and legacy. So, in 2014, when he noticed fans posting bootleg videos of his concerts online, “The Purple One” took legal action. He filed suits against 22 different fans who had posted videos of him online, totaling $22 million in damages.
Later that same month, Prince dropped the suits for unknown reasons. One likely theory is that the bootleggers were just sharing videos with other fans for free, so it could be very hard to collect damages from them. Another is that suing your own fans is simply not a good look.