From John Fogerty to Tom Petty: 4 Artists Who Took Their Record Labels to Court—and Won

In 1984, Little Richard sued Specialty Records for $112 million in damages for unpaid royalties since he left the label in 1959. Richard previously gave up the rights to his 1955 hit “Tutti Frutti”—which sold 200,000 copies within a week and a half and went to No. 2 on the R&B chart—to the label in 1957 for $50 with a half-cent for each record sold. Specialty countersued Richard, and the lawsuits were settled for a cash amount, but Richard never obtained future royalties for his hits.

“I don’t think I ever got what I really deserved,” Richard said in 2004. “But it’s a joy just to still be here, to have stood the test of time. I think that when people want joy and fun and happiness, they want to hear old-time rock and roll. And I’m just glad that I was a part of that.”

After a decade-long battle, The Beatles settled with EMI Group in 1989 over the underpayment of royalties and the unauthorized use of their recordings, including the use of their song “Revolution” in a Nike campaign and Heineken beer issuing a cassette of Beatles hits—including a previously unreleased version of the band’s 1965 song ”Yes It Is.” In 2005, Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr, and the estates of John Lennon and George Harrison went to court with EMI again, suing the label for more than $53 million in unpaid royalties, which was later settled in 2007.

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Throughout the decades, musicians have been forced to take legal action against their labels to protect the rights of their catalogs, name and likeness, royalties, licensing, and other assets, or to acquire artistic freedom.

[RELATED: When Neil Young Was Sued by His Label for Not Being Commercial Enough]

In 2014, Brad Paisley sued Sony for $10 million for underpaid royalties. A year later, Dr. Dre triumphed in a legal battle against Death Row Records after the courts ruled that the label could not sell his 1992 debut The Chronic digitally without his permission. Kanye West filed a pair of lawsuits against EMI and Universal in 2019 to remove himself from his contracts and regain control of his publishing rights. The list goes on.

Even if all legal battles haven’t ended in favor of the artist, here are four musicians who went to court with their labels and were triumphant.

1. Erroll Garner

In 1960, Erroll Garner, known for his 1954 jazz standard “Misty” and hit album Concert by the Sea (1955), sued Columbia Records for breach of contract for using his music without his permission. The lawsuit marked the first time an artist sued a record label. In 1956, the jazz pianist signed a five-year contract with the label that included a clause granting Garner the right to approve the release of his recorded music.

“Is it you feel you can sandbag me because I am a Negro artist?” said Garner after the label released his album Swinging Solos in 1960 without his consent. “Must demand that sale and distribution of album stop immediately and that it be recalled from [the] press, radio people, and record dealers who have previously received it, because it not only violates my artistic integrity but that of every artist on your label.”

The label filed a countersuit in federal court, which forced Garner to pay a $40,000 cash bond. “I paid the cash bond because I felt, and I feel, that not only my rights are at issue in this case, but the rights of my fellow members of the record and music industry are involved, and it became deeply urgent to sustain the injunction,” said Garner. “I truly hope that the future for all recording artists might hold greater security for creative property as a result of this action.”

After the three-year-long battle in court, Garner was victorious. The New York State Supreme Court ruled in his favor and his artist’s rights. Garner and his manager Martha Glaser used the $265,000 settlement from Columbia to start his independent label Octave Records

2. Tom Petty

After working with the label with his previous band Mudcrutch, Tom Petty signed his first solo record deal with Shelter Records in 1976, but had no idea what the implications the future sale of the label would have on his rights. When Shelter distributor, ABC Records, was sold to MCA in 1979, Petty didn’t approve of being transferred to another label without his consent and fought against transferring his contract and his publishing rights.

“I had no idea I’d never make money if I did that,” said Petty in 1980. “I could work my ass off for the rest of my life, and for every dime I saw, the people that set me up would’ve seen ten times as much.”

To nullify his previous contract, in May 1979, all legal proceedings halted when Petty filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The move forced the label to void his previous contract. Fearing that more artists would follow his lead, MCA created a new imprint for Petty, Backstreet Records.

[RELATED: 7 Songs You Didn’t Know Tom Petty Wrote for Other Artists]

During the legal dispute, Petty released his third album Damn the Torpedoes, and went to No. 2 on the Billboard 200 and included his hits “Refugee,” Petty’s “reaction to the pressures of the music business,” and “Don’t Do Me Like That,” along with “Here Comes My Girl.”

3. Neil Young

After two lackluster releases under his then-new label Geffen—the tropical-inspired Island in the Sun in 1982 and his first full-length release, Trans, a year later—Neil Young was approached by the label to get back to his old, Crazy Horse sound. Geffen wanted Young to make a classic rock and roll album. In response, he offered up a country album, which they rejected, then compromised by giving them a rock album. Switching genres entirely, Young released the rockabilly album Everybody’s Rockin’, which he recorded with a new band, the Shocking Pinks.

“They told me they wanted me to play rock and roll, and told me I didn’t sound like Neil Young,” said Young in 2011 of his past legal ordeal. “So I gave them ‘Everybody’s Rockin’ and said, ‘This is a rock and roll album by Neil Young after someone tells him what to do. This is exactly what you said you wanted.’

[RELATED: The Rockabilly Album Neil Young Released to Annoy His Label]

When the album flopped, Geffen sued Young for $3.3 million and claimed that he violated his contract. Geffen said the albums released by Young were “musically uncharacteristic of [his] previous recordings.” Young countersued the label for $21 million and the case was later closed in court. He went on to release three more albums with Geffen—Old Ways (1985), Landing on Water (1986), and Life with Crazy Horse (1987)—before returning to Reprise.

4. John Fogerty

In 1985, Fantasy Records sued John Fogerty for copyright infringement for the song “The Old Man Down the Road,” released on his third solo album Centerfield on Warner Bros. Records. Fantasy claimed that the music on “The Old Man Down the Road” was the same as his 1970 Creedence Clearwater Revival song “Run Through the Jungle.”

Fogerty proved that both songs were distinct compositions and later won his case. He later countersued Fantasy (Fogerty v. Fantasy) to get back more than $1.35 million in legal fees he lost during the case, and won in the U.S. Supreme Court.

[RELATED: John Fogerty: Discovering It All Over Again — 2023 Interview]

“In 1988, I had to go through a plagiarism trial where I was sued for sounding like myself, and people tell me this was unprecedented,” recalled Fogerty in 2000. “I spent more than three years trying to resolve these issues, but sadly it didn’t work.”

Amid the lawsuit, Fogerty recorded his 1986 album Eye of the Zombie, but wouldn’t release another new music until Blue Moon Swamp in 1997.

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

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