5 of the Biggest Copyright Lawsuits in Music

At the end of the day, there are only so many chords and patterns an artist can pull from when making music. Given the expanse of music history, you’d be hard-pressed to find a song that is complete without parallel in the industry today.

Videos by American Songwriter

While some similarities between songs fly under the radar and are passed off as an inevitability, others receive high-profile copyright cases that could go on for years and tarnish the songwriter’s credibility forever.

Below, we’ve detailed five of the biggest copyright cases of all time for you to revisit. Do you agree with the outcomes of these cases?

1. Willie Dixon vs. Led Zeppelin

Given Led Zeppelin’s singular influence on rock music, you wouldn’t guess they could be accused of snagging anything off of another artist. Nevertheless, the group has been tangled up in several copyright cases throughout its career, with one of its first being filed by Willie Dixon.

Like many British rockers of the era, Led Zeppelin was heavily influenced by American blues. One proprietor of the genre, Willie Dixon, thought their music stepped over the line of influence into full-on thievery.

Dixon wrote the Muddy Waters track “You Need Love.” He thought Zeppelin’s track “Whole Lotta Love” sounded far too much like Waters’ earlier hit, prompting him to file suit. In the end, Zeppelin and Dixon settled the matter out of court and added Dixon to the writing credits for “Whole Lotta Love.”

2. Ronnie Mack and The Chiffons v. George Harrison

Once George Harrison came out from underneath the shadow of the McCartney/Lennon partnership, he was able to flex his own songwriting ability on his solo debut album, All Things Must Pass.

Among the tracklist for the album was one of Harrison’s biggest hits, “My Sweet Lord.” Despite catapulting Harrison into solo superstardom, that success was quickly undercut by a copyright suit from The Chiffons publisher, which claimed “My Sweet Lord” sounded an awful lot like their 1963 hit “He’s So Fine.” The suit was filed in the wake of songwriter Ronnie Mack’s death soon after “He’s So Fine” made its debut. At the end of the case, the judge said Harrison subconsciously took elements of “He’s So Fine” and prompted him to pay over $1,000,000.

3. Marvin Gaye Estate v. Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams

Moving on to a more contemporary case, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ “Blurred Lines” was put on the chopping block in the early 2010s after Marvin Gaye’s estate filed suit for similarities to “Got to Give It Up.”

The two songs hold striking similarities in melody and beat and though the two artists claimed they didn’t knowingly steal from the late great soul legend, the judge ruled that there was enough there to warrant copyright infringement. The artists were forced to pay $5.3 million and half of the song’s royalties to Gaye’s estate.

4. Ed Townsend Estate v. Ed Sheeran

Recently, Gaye has been in the headlines for a copyright case again thanks to a suit filed by the heirs of his co-writer, Ed Townsend, against Ed Sheeran. The case compared the similarities between Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” and Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”

The recently closed case dragged on for eight years. Townsend’s heirs filed the suit claiming Sheeran had blatantly stolen elements from Gaye’s timeless “Let’s Get It On.” The judge ruled earlier this month, that “Thinking Out Loud” was an independent work and Sheeran was able to walk away unscathed.

[RELATED: Ed Sheeran Wins “Thinking Out Loud” Copyright Lawsuit ]

“I am obviously very happy with the outcome of the case, and it looks like I’m not going to have to retire from my day job after all — but, at the same time, I am unbelievably frustrated that baseless claims like this are allowed to go to court at all,” Sheeran said in a statement after the verdict was read.

5. Queen and David Bowie v. Vanilla Ice

Last but certainly not least, we have the infamous case between Vanilla Ice, Queen, and David Bowie.

“Under Pressure” is one of the most iconic rock songs of all time with one of the most recognizable bass lines ever, so it’d be a stretch to think you could borrow from this song without anyone noticing. Vanilla Ice was apparently ready to make that leap.

Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby” makes use of the same bass line in “Under Pressure” with little to no alteration. The case was a fairly cut-and-dry one with the group settling out of court. The rapper decided to buy “Under Pressure” outright to avoid any enduring royalty payments.

Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Leave a Reply

Shakira Talks Finding Internal Strength During Billboard Women in Latin Music Gala