Music's 10 Most Notable Plagiarism Lawsuits
Ed Sheeran at BBVA Compass Stadium, September 2015
Photo by Jack Gorman
Ed Sheeran is famous around the world for myriad hit singles, for being Taylor Swift’s BFF, and for being a rarity in today’s musical climate — a solo artist who can move millions of records on the back of strong mainstream terrestrial radio play. Turns out he may have taken a page out of someone else’s playbook in achieving such lofty heights.
Sheeran, it was reported last week, is being sued by two songwriters for more than $20 million, who claim that Sheeran’s hit single, “Photograph,” bears a “striking similarity” to a song they once wrote for a previous winner of the British singing competition, “The X Factor.” Per a lawsuit filed on June 8, Martin Harrington and Tom Leonard allege that “Photograph” sounds similar to “Amazing,” a song released in 2012 by Season 7 X Factor winner Matt Cardle. The pair is seeking a jury trial, damages of more than $20 million, and royalties from the song.
Whether Sheeran is guilty of consciously or subconsciously lifting the song will be determined in a court of law, but one thing is certain: Sheeran isn’t the first big name to be accused of stealing another artist's music, nor will he be the last. Here are ten of the most noteworthy examples of one artist accusing another of plagiarism.
10. HUEY LEWIS v. RAY PARKER JR. (and vice versa)
Somewhat timely, considering the Ghostbusters reboot hits theaters this summer, but in 1984, Huey Lewis sued Ray Parker Jr., who recorded the theme for the original “Ghostbusters.” Lewis alleged that Parker’s theme bore a strong resemblance to his own tune, “I Want a New Drug.” The two eventually settled and agreed to a confidentiality clause, which Lewis broke when he spoke about the case in a Behind the Music episode. Sensing a chance for comeuppance, Parker then turned around and sued Lewis for breaking the terms of their agreement.
9. ALLEN KLEIN v. THE VERVE
The Verve was a popular band in the U.K. (their homeland) who managed one hit in the U.S. – 1997’s “Bittersweet Symphony.” The band made no bones about the fact that they were lifting the orchestral background from someone else; the Verve negotiated an agreement to use a five-note sample from an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.” However, former Stones manager Allen Klein (who owned the song’s rights) sued the band, alleging that it lifted far more than was initially agreed upon. The parties settled out of court, and the Verve forked over every last dime of their songwriting royalties for “Bittersweet Symphony.” That’s right, the band made as much off its one U.S. radio hit as you or I.
8. GORDON JENKINS v. JOHNNY CASH
Damn, Johnny Cash? Yep, turns out one of country music’s original badasses, and one of its best storytellers, wasn’t always telling his own stories. If you’ve ever thought that “Folsom Prison Blues,” one of the Man in Black’s biggest hits, sounds eerily similar to Gordon Jenkins’ “Crescent City Blues,” you’re not the only one. Jenkins noticed as much and later recouped $100,000 from Cash, who apparently is a better musician than he is a thief; dude didn’t even bother to change the opening lyrics!
7. YUSUF ISLAM v. THE FLAMING LIPS
The former Cat Stevens is quick to jump on anyone he thinks may have misappropriated his music, and he did just that upon hearing the Flaming Lips “Fight Test,” citing its similarity to his own “Father and Son.” So he sued the band, and as a result now owns 75 percent of the song’s royalties. Flaming Lips front man Wayne Coyne, who put on one hell of a show at White Oak Music Hall last month, admitted that he picked up on the similarities pretty quickly, but never thought to get clearance from Stevens or his record label. It cost him, even if he said he would never have done the same; “If anyone wanted to borrow part of a Flaming Lips song, I don't think I'd bother pursuing it. I've got better things to do. Anyway, Cat Stevens is never going to make much money out of us,” he told The Guardian in 2003.
6. CHUCK BERRY (VIA MORRIS LEVY) v. JOHN LENNON
Talk about a heavyweight battle: one of the founders of rock and roll versus the most popular band in history. In one corner, Berry, whose publishing company (owned by Morris Levy) alleged that certain lines and melodies from the Beatles’ smash, “Come Together,” bore striking resemblance to Berry’s 1956 single “You Can’t Catch Me.” In the other, Beatles co-front man John Lennon, who as part of a settlement agreed to record three songs, all of which were owned by Levy, to serve as financial compensation. Lennon and Levy traded lawsuits for years afterward, which somehow resulted in Roots, a collection of rare Lennon bootlegs.
5. SPIRIT v. LED ZEPPELIN
Finally, a dispute with a Houston connection! Led Zeppelin is currently in the midst of a trial in which it is being sued for allegedly stealing the opening to the iconic rock track “Stairway to Heaven.” As early as this month, a California jury will decide whether the band lifted elements of the Spirit song “Taurus,” an instrumental track released three years prior to “Stairway.” According to the suit, the parties can’t agree on whether Zeppelin duo Jimmy Page and Robert Plant heard “Taurus” at music festivals in the '60s, thereby compelling them to write “Stairway,” which was released in 1971. The kicker to this whole story? Three of the surviving members of Spirit live in the Houston area.
4. QUEEN & DAVID BOWIE v. VANILLA ICE
Look man, just because you add a “tsst” to a melody don’t make it your own. Try telling that to Vanilla Ice, who oh-so-subtly tweaked Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” in crafting his own megahit “Ice Ice Baby.” The opening guitar rift in both songs is essentially the same, save for a small change to the bassline of Ice’s version. Bowie and Queen sued Vanilla Ice for copyright infringement (the legal battle never went to court), and the erstwhile Robert Van Winkle agreed to pay royalties to the group and give them songwriting credit for “Ice Ice Baby.’
3. TOM PETTY v. SAM SMITH
These types of disputes don’t often end amicably, but this one — which garnered major media coverage in late 2014/early 2015 — did just that. After Petty’s people noticed – as many others did – the similarities between his 1989 classic “I Won’t Back Down” and Smith’s smash 2014 single, “Stay With Me," Petty’s people reached out to Smith’s people. The parties settled out of court, which included songwriting credit for both Petty and composer Jeff Lynne. Smith’s people acknowledged it as a “coincidence,” and the British crooner rebounded by winning an Academy Award for Best Original Song in 2016. Petty chalked it all up as “a musical accident” and went back to being one of the coolest dudes on the planet.
2. MARVIN GAYE''S ESTATE v. ROBIN THICKE, PHARRELL & T.I.
This one? Yeah, not so amicable. R&B legend Marvin Gaye’s estate initially sought $25 million in damages in alleging that Thicke ripped off Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up” when he released the song of 2013, “Blurred Lines.” A California jury in March 2015 agreed, and ordered Thicke and co-writer Pharrell to pay Gaye’s family $7.3 million. Pharrell, Thicke and collaborator T.I. (who escaped liability) were furious with the ruling, which included $4 million in damages and $3.3 million in “Blurred Lines” profits. The award trounced the previous record judgment for a copyright infringement suit, previously a $5.4 million 1994 ruling where Michael Bolton had to pay for using a portion of the Isley Brothers’ “Love Is a Wonderful Thing” in his own song of the same name.
1. JOHN FOGERTY v. SAUL ZAENTZ
This one earns the top spot if only for its sheer lunacy. Saul Zaentz was the owner of Fantasy Records, which inked Creedence Clearwater Revival to a record deal in 1967. Five years later, the band broke up and Fogerty went solo. Zaentz later sued Fogerty, alleging that his 1985 single “The Old Man Down the Road,” was basically the same as CCR's 1970 track “Run Through the Jungle.” Yes, John Fogerty was sued for basically plagiarizing himself, and had to play the two songs on the witness stand during court proceedings. He won the case and later sued Zaentz (and won) for legal fees pertaining to Zaentz’s initial suit. Zaentz died in 2014 at the age of 92, and Fogerty — who once said he expected to “dance a jig” on Zaentz’s grave — instead said the news left him with “very little feeling at all.”
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