Music's 10 Most Notable Plagiarism Lawsuits

Ed Sheeran at BBVA Compass Stadium, September 2015
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.

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.

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!

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.

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.

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.

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