The Biggest Music Copyright Cases in History
Music belongs to the artists and composers who write and produce it, but there have been many times that music has been sampled or used without permission.
Songs are protected under copyright laws in two ways. Both the song itself (the music and the lyrics, which is the musical composition) and the recording of the song (the sound recording) are copyrighted.
To legally play or use any part of a song that is copyright protected, you will need two different licenses: a sync license for the composition and a master-use license for the sound recording. This requires permission from the composer or songwriter as well as the music producer or record label.
Many times in history, musicians have sampled or drawn from another song or musical composition without the proper permission or licensing. This has led to some massive legal battles.
Below, we outline 10 of the biggest copyright cases in music history to date.
1. Chuck Berry vs. the Beach Boys
Chuck Berry’s famous guitar riffs are often sampled and incorporated into the works of other musicians; however, the Beach Boys took this even further. They took the entire song, Chuck Berry’s 1958 “Sweet Little Sixteen,” changed the lyrics, and released it as “Surfin’ USA” in 1963.
Threats of a lawsuit encouraged the Beach Boys manager Murray Wilson to quickly hand over the publishing rights to Arc Music, Berry’s publisher. Both Berry and Wilson now get credit for the song.
A lawsuit was avoided, but this became one of the first major plagiarism incidents in the music industry.
2. The Chiffons vs. George Harrison
George Harrison of the Beatles was the first member of the group to hit No. 1 on the charts with his solo song “My Sweet Lord” in 1970. Unfortunately, the song sounded strikingly similar to the Chiffons’ 1962 hit song “He’s So Fine” that was written by Ronnie Mack.
George Harrison’s then manager Alan Klein went to Bright Tunes Music Corporation who owned the rights to the original song in an attempt to purchase the entire music catalog. Bright Tunes decided they wanted to continue with a court case, however, and filed a plagiarism lawsuit in 1971. The case would not go to trial for another four years.
It was ruled that Harrison had access to the Chiffon’s song due to its popularity. While he may not have intentionally used it to create his version, he was guilty of “subconscious plagiarism” and ordered to pay $1,599,987 in 1981. This amount was lowered to $587,000 after Klein purchased Bright Tunes Music and negotiated the sale of the song to Harrison.
3. Queen & David Bowie vs. Vanilla Ice
Queen and David Bowie’s collaboration “Under Pressure” in 1981 has one of the most infamous bass lines in music history. So much so that Vanilla Ice sampled it for his song “Ice Ice Baby” in 1990.
Representatives for Queen and Bowie threatened a copyright infringement case. Vanilla Ice attempted to claim that his melody was different due to an added note between two of the beats. It was not enough of a difference, and he was sued.
Vanilla Ice settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, but he reports that it cost him less to buy the copyright of the song instead of paying the settlement. He says he did that instead, but this is unconfirmed. He also suffered in the eyes of the public, drawing ridicule and scorn.
Bowie and members of Queen were given songwriting credits on the track that they had no intention of collaborating on, sparking discussions about the protection of artists’ creativity above just the protection of their financial interests.
4. Rolling Stones vs. the Verve
In 1997, the Verve released “Bittersweet Symphony,” which sampled an orchestral recording of the 1965 Rolling Stones song “One Last Time.” The Verve had initially obtained permission to use a sample by Decca Records, but the Stones argued that they took more than the agreement stated. Additionally, the underlying composition rights were not cleared.
The former manager of the Stones, Allen Klein, sued the Verve, claiming that his record company ABKCO owned the rights to the song. Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were given songwriter credit to “Bittersweet Symphony,” and $1.7 million was paid in royalties.
This complicated case dragged on for years, proving the intricacies of copyrights and how multiple rights are held for a single song.
5. Marvin Gaye vs. Robin Thicke & Pharrell Williams
In 2013, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams released “Blurred Lines.” The estate of the late Marvin Gaye spotted similarities to the 1977 hit “Got to Give it Up” and filed a copyright infringement case in 2014.
The songs are not directly similar. There is no plagiarism of lyrics or sheet music, but the suit claims that “Blurred Lines” uses the same instrumentation and “feel” of the original.
The verdict agreed with the Gaye estate, awarding them $7.4 million, which was eventually reduced to $5.3 million, and 50 percent of all future royalties of the song. In 2016, legal teams for Thicke and Williams appealed the verdict. It was upheld in 2018 with a final judgment of $4.98 million, interest on the owed amount, and half of all future royalties on the song to be paid.
The artist T.I. was also named in the initial suit as a featured artist on the song, but he was cleared of any liability.
This case established a precedent that a song’s overall vibe can be protected, not just the music and lyrics. It set forth a flurry of additional copyright infringement cases and actions.
6. Chuck Berry vs. John Lennon
The 1969 Beatles song “Come Together” by John Lennon was alleged to have plagiarized Chuck Berry’s 1956 song “You Can’t Catch Me” by merely slowing down and giving the song a funkier arrangement than the original.
Berry’s publisher and owner of Big Seven Music started legal proceedings. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount and a promise from Lennon to record three more songs from the Berry catalog on his next record. Lennon was found in breach of this contract when he only recorded two songs, and he was ordered to pay Levy $6,795.
The matter continued when Lennon sent some demo recordings to Levy who then released them through Big Seven Music. Lennon, Capitol Records, and EMI were awarded $109,700 in lost royalties, and Lennon was granted $35,000 in compensation for damages.
7. Spirit vs. Led Zeppelin
Perhaps one of the most famous instrumental guitar pieces in rock history, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” in 1971 faced legal trouble when the estate of the late Randy Wolfe of the band Spirit claimed it was stolen from his 1968 song “Taurus,” filing suit in 2014.
The case was difficult to prove, however, as it involves a deep dive into music theory and the intricacies of harmonic movement. Led Zeppelin did have access to “Taurus” having supported Spirit on tour in 1969, but it was ruled that the songs were not in fact similar in 2016.
An appeals court reviewed the case in 2018, but the original verdict was upheld in 2020. The case officially ended with the U.S. Supreme Court refusing to hear it.
8. Creedence Clearwater Revival vs. John Fogarty
John Fogarty was the former front man for Creedence Clearwater Revival. After leaving the group and the Fantasy record label, Fogarty was sued for plagiarizing and sounding too much like himself. In 1985, Fogarty released the solo song “The Old Man Down the Road” that Fantasy records claimed was a direct plagiarism of the 1970 Creedence Clearwater Revival song “Run Through the Jungle” for which they owned the rights.
The court sided with Fogarty, seeing the songs as different enough, but Fogarty now had $1.09 million in legal fees from his defense. He was not able to prove that the lawsuit was frivolous or in bad faith, and his initial appeal was denied. It appeared in the U.S. Supreme Court as Fogarty v. Fantasy, Inc. where the ruling went in his favor.
9. The Turtles vs. De La Soul
Hip-hop and rap artists often sample pieces of songs and music in their own music. Pioneers De La Soul created nearly their entire early work this way, when sampling was a fairly new art form on the scene. Not all of these samples had the proper clearance.
In 1991, they released an interlude skit “Transmitting Live From Mars” on their album 3 Feet High,which contained a 12-second sample of the 1969 Turtles song “You Showed Me.”
Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, formerly of the Turtles, sued De La Soul in a $2.5 million lawsuit that was settled out of court for $1.7 million. This set a dangerous precedent for the rap and hip-hop genres. It led to a decline in sampling due to the difficulties of obtaining all possible rights and the legal ramifications and licensing fees.
10. Roy Orbison vs. 2 Live Crew
In 1989, the hip-hop group 2 Live Crew released “Pretty Woman,” a parody of the 1964 hit by Roy Orbison “Oh, Pretty Woman.” 2 Live Crew sought the rights to the song before releasing it, reaching out directly to Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. who owned the copyright, but the request was denied.
The song was released anyway with 2 Live Crew believing they were protected under “fair use” doctrine, which allows for use of copyrighted material for parody purposes. A Federal District Court sided with 2 Live Crew; however, the ruling was reversed through an appeals court, citing that the song was a commercial exploit for profit and therefore not protected through “fair use.”
Luke Campbell of 2 Live Crew opposed this, claiming that satire and parody are protected under the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of 2 Live Crew in the Campbell v. Acuff-Rose case, upholding the policy of parody being protected under “fair use.”
Songs on Trial: 12 Landmark Copyright Cases. (June 2016). Rolling Stone.
Vanilla Ice Claims He Owns Queen’s ‘Under Pressure’. (July 2017). Ultimate Classic Rock.
Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams to Pay $5 Million to Marvin Gaye Estate for ‘Blurred Lines.’ (December 2018). NBC News.
Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven Copyright Battle Is Finally Over. (October 2020). BBC News.