(Publication Note: This blog post was originally posted on the Music Dealers Blog)
Being unoriginal and/or cheap can cost you big time in the music industry. There’s been hundreds of music lawsuits over the last 30 years…some well founded, and some totally off-base. Most recently, artists like Justin Bieber, Kanye West, and Ed Sheeran have been in the news and come under fire for “copying” a pre-existing piece of music. Check out the deets for these and other big music lawsuits in music history.
Casey Dienel vs. Justin Bieber and Skrillex
Song in Question: “Sorry” by Justin Bieber, 2015
Song it Allegedly Sounds Like: “Ring the Bell” by White Hinterland, 2014
That’s right, Justin Bieber is being sued once again, but this time it’s actually about his music. His smash hit, “Sorry,” has everyone singing the infectious vocal riff that plays throughout the song. But as of May 27th, Casey Dienel, also known by her stage name White Hinterland, claims that Bieber and fellow producer on the song Skrillex stole that oh-so-catchy vocal riff from her song “Ring The Bell,” which was released the year before. Dienel claims to have reached out to Bieber, but he “ignored” her and her claims about the vocal hook. Both Bieber and Skrillex have openly stated that there is no truth to Miss Dienel’s claims. The lawsuit that’s been filed on her behalf is asking for an unspecified amount in damages.
The Verdict: Time will only tell if the Biebs and Skrillex will settle out of court over the vocal hook debate. Either way, a lot of cash is at stake in this case.
Gabor Presser vs. Kanye West
Song in Question: “New Slaves” by Kanye West, 2013
Song it Allegedly Sounds Like: “Gyongyhaju Lany” by Omega, 1969
Gabor Pressor, a member of the 1960s Hungarian band Omega, claims that one-third of the 2013 Kanye West hit, “New Slaves,” is actually a sample from a song he wrote for Omega back in 1969. This one is pretty sketchy on Yeezus’ part. It turns out that Presser says he was not contacted about using his music until Ye’s lawyer emailed him right after marketing for the new music began, informing him that the rapper “would like to work out a deal with you as soon as possible” but only gave him 24 hours to respond to his email. Can you say “Red Flag Number 1”? But wait, it gets sketchier. Later on, West’s lawyers supposedly sent Presser a check for $10,000 and pressed him (no pun intended), to grant a license. #RedFlagNo2. In his complaint, Presser claims he never cashed the check.
The Verdict: Presser is suing for 2.5 million dollars for copyright infringement and damages. If anything Kanye is saying about his money troubles is true, it looks like he’s in even bigger trouble with this one.
Martin Harrington and Thomas Leonard vs. Ed Sheeran
Song in Question: “Photograph” by Ed Sheeran, 2015
Song it Allegedly Sounds Like: “Amazing” by Matt Cardle, 2012
Ed Sheeran’s romantic single, “Photograph,” has sold over 3.5 million copies. But with that success may also come a fat check for songwriters Martin Harrington and Thomas Leonard. The two songwriters are suing the red-headed songwriter for ripping off the chorus of their song “Amazing,” which they wrote for former UK X-Factor winner Matt Cardle in 2009. Harrington and Leonard are both being represented by Richard Busch, who successfully sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell WIlliams over their 2013 hit “Blurred Lines.” (More later on).
The Verdict: The case has yet to be heard, but the songwriters are suing for 20 million dollars. Given how similar the choruses are, our guess is Sheeran and other parties involved will settle out of court.
The Turles vs. De La Soul
Song in Question: “Transmitting Live From Mars” by De La Soul, 1989
Song it Allegedly Sounds Like: “You Showed Me” by The Turtles, 1968
This case changed the course of hip hop forever. In 1991, hip hop group De La Soul was sued for 2.5 million dollars by two members of the 1960s group The Turtles: Mark Volman and Howard Kaylan. What was De La Soul’s crime? Using a 12 second sample from an unpopular track from The Turtles called “You Showed Me.” The real kicker is that Volman and Kaylan didn’t even have a role in writing the tune!
The Verdict: The case ended up being settled out of court, where a $1.7 million settlement was agreed upon. That’s right, the hip hop group had to pay the copyright owners $141,666.67 per second. Following this case, sampling in 90s hip hop became much riskier and scared many labels away from allowing rappers to use samples, big or small, in their music.
Tom Petty vs. Sam Smith
Song in Question: “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith, 2012
Song it Allegedly Sounds Like: “I Won’t Back Down” by Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers, 1989
Believe it or not, it is possible to “accidentally plagiarize” someone’s creative work. That was exactly the case with the British soulful crooner we’ve all come to love, Sam Smith. Smith’s first big hit, “Stay With Me,” has a chorus which bears resemblance to Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” Petty himself said that he believed it was a total accident that Smith’s melody sounded similar to his own. Smith took home his first Grammys of his career for “Stay With Me,” winning Record of the Year and Song of the Year.
The Verdict: Smith and the other music parties involved agreed to give partial writing credit to Petty. Petty released a statement saying there were no “hard feelings toward Sam,” and the entire case seems to be one of the friendliest and smooth copyright disputes the industry has seen.
Chuck Berry vs. The Beach Boys
Song in Question: “Surfin’ USA” by The Beach Boys, 1963
Song it Allegedly Sounds Like: “Little Sweet Sixteen” by Chuck Berry, 1958
It’s true. Though back in the day The Beach Boys and specifically Brian Wilson were known for their original songs, one of their classic songs is not an original. Their hit, “Surfin’ U.S.A.”, went to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart in 1963. But it sounded an awful like Chuck Berry’s “Little Sweet Sixteen.” Chuck Berry and his publishers filed suit against Wilson and Beach Boys for infringement. When compared, the songs are borderline identical melody-wise.
The Verdict: In the end, writing credit and publishing royalties were signed over to Berry, though Wilson still claims the song was an homage to Berry’s music, not an infringement of it.
The Chiffons vs. George Harrison
Song in Question: “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison, 1970
Song it Allegedly Sounds Like: “He’s So Fine” by The Chiffons, 1962
Long before Sam Smith accidentally plagiarized Tom Petty, another adored Brit, George Harrison, accidentally plagiarized famed 1960’s girl group The Chiffons. Harrison went solo from The Beatles in 1970 and released the hit “My Sweet Lord.” The problem was that his new single was all too similar to the Chiffons 1962 hit, “He’s So Fine”. The music publishers who owned the rights to the song, Bright Tunes, filed suit against Harrison in February of 1971. Harrison did admit that he must have “subconsciously” copied the tune which he was familiar with. The two sides attempted to settle out of court; however, they were unable to agree upon a settlement.
The Verdict: At the end of the trial, a judge found that the song did strongly resemble “He’s So Fine” and ordered Harrison to pay out 3⁄4 of the royalties he received from “My Sweet Lord.”
Joe Satriani vs. Coldplay
Song in Question: “Viva La Vida” by Coldplay, 2008
Song it Allegedly Sounds Like: “If I Could Fly” by Joe Satriani, 2004
Coldplay is known for their unique sounds, but rock guitarist Joe Satriani didn’t think “Viva La Vida” was very unique. He claimed that the lead single of Coldplay’s No. 1-selling album in 36 countries included one of his guitar riffs from his 2004 instrumental song, “If I Could Fly.” The riff in question can be heard plain as day in both tracks.
The Verdict: Coldplay and Satriani settled out of court for an undisclosed amount (interesting), and Coldplay did not have to admit to any wrongdoing.
Queen and David Bowie vs. Vanilla Ice
Song in Question: “Ice Ice Baby” by Vanilla Ice, 1990
Song it Allegedly Sounds Like: “Under Pressure” by Queen & David Bowie, 1981
Queen and David Bowie did not want to “kick it” with 90’s rapper Vanilla Ice after hearing “Ice Ice Baby.” Robert Van Winkle (Vanilla Ice’s real name), claimed that he slightly altered the famous opening guitar riff that also kicks off the melody of his rap track, therefore it was his own property. Realizing that wasn’t gonna fly with Queen, he decided to settle.
The Verdict: Vanilla Ice agreed to pay royalties to David Bowie and Queen to avoid the lawsuit. Ice also gave both David Bowie and Queen songwriting credit for his hit, “Ice Ice Baby.”
Marvin Gaye vs. Robin Thicke And Pharrell Williams
Song in Question: “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke feat. Pharrell, 2013
Song it Allegedly Sounds Like: “Got to Give It Up” by Marvin Gaye, 1977
Putting the music video rape culture scandal aside, “Blurred Lines” had another scandal following its release: a copyright scandal. The family of the late great Marvin Gaye sued the creative minds behind Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” for major similarities between the song’s back-beat and Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” In an interview, Thicke stated, “I know the difference between inspiration and theft. I’m constantly inspired, but I would never steal. And neither would Pharrell.”
The Verdict: The courts however, did not agree with Thicke, and he and Pharrell were ordered to pay Marvin Gaye’s children $7.3 million in damages, plus $3.4 million in profits the two made from their copyright infringement. Richard Busch, the lawyer for Nona Gaye, Frankie Gaye, and Marvin Gaye III, claims that his clients will most likely have to re-litigate this case every three years. The verdict is now under appeal by the courts.
Listen to a playlist of all these songs on Spotify here.