10 Music Copyright Infringement Lawsuits Where the Plaintiff Won

 Guitar player performing on a stage

Did you know that western music is composed of just 12 fundamental notes? It is these few notes that when combined with varying pitch and frequency, produce literally infinite melodies.

But when it comes to proper music composition, singers and music instrumentalists face quite a challenge in ensuring that their work does not come close to any other recorded track produced previously. However, despite taking meticulous care, different musical works end up being similar in some way or another. Since a lot of hard work and effort goes into producing even the simplest of melodies, lawyers of artists are always quick to act in case they feel their client’s work has been duplicated.

From hip hop and classical music to electronic and modern beats, here are the top ten music copyright infringement lawsuits from across the world where the plaintiff was successful.

1. Led Zeppelin vs. Willie Dixon (and Ritchie Valens)

Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of legendary rock band Led Zeppelin perform at Nassau Coliseum on their 1975 North American tour
Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of Led Zeppelin

Led Zeppelin’s tracks had the audience swaying to the beats with their hearts thumping to the heavy metal music. However, everyone knows how notorious the band was when it came to the originality of their work.

‘Bring It on Home,’ ‘The Lemon Song’ and ‘Whole Lotta Love’ are three of their songs that have all been charged with copyright infringement. Bring It on Home which was a part of their 1969 music album titled Led Zeppelin (II) was copied from Sonny Boy Williamson’s recording, which was written by Willie Dixon under the same name in 1963.

The Lemon Song which was also included in Led Zeppelin (II) comprised of an adaptation of ‘Killing Floor’ by Howlin’ Wolf. Although the album was an initial hit, it was about three years later that the publishing arm of Chess Records (Arc Music) filed a lawsuit against Led Zeppelin for music copyright infringement over both tracks.

The case was settled out of court after Zeppelin paid an undisclosed sum to the plaintiff. As for ‘Whole Lotta Love’ which included lyrics derived from ‘You Need Love,’ (a 1962 song by Dixon), a lawsuit was filed in 1985. It too was settled out of court after Led Zeppelin agreed to share credit with William Dixon by identifying him as a co-writer.

And as if this wasn’t enough, the publisher of ‘Ooh! My Head’ by Ritchie Valen also brought forth a copyright infringement case against ‘Boogie with Stu’ by Led Zeppelin. It too was settled with a significant payment made to the plaintiff.

2. The Chiffons vs. George Harrison

This case against infringement is another example of how the petitioner was wise to come forward.

While the Beatles are famous for the wonders that they produced, George Harrison was the first amongst them to have a solo Number One. With ‘My Sweet Lord,’ Harrison topped the Billboard charts.

The ode itself was completely original but the musical verses bore a close resemblance with the early ‘60s Brill Building pop ‘He’s So Fine’ written by Ronnie Mack and performed by the Chiffons in 1962.

Bright Tunes Music Corporation, which was Mack’s publisher, claimed Harrison guilty of plagiarizing Chiffon’s work. It took five years for the case to go to trial but in the meanwhile, the Chiffon’s recorded My Sweet Lord themselves to bring public attention to the matter. Harrison was ruled guilty of ‘subconsciously’ copying the Chiffon’s work and had to pay over half a million dollars in compensation.

3. Chuck Berry vs. John Lennon

 Turntables with Beatles poster in the background
The Beatles

If you are a Beatles’ fan, then you must have definitely heard their 1969 song, Come Together. But do you know about the lawsuit that surrounded it?

John Lennon was accused to use a line from Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me.’ As a result, Berry’s publisher, the Big Seven Music Corporation, filed a case of music copyright infringement against Lennon. A settlement was reached in 1973 in which Lennon agreed to record three songs of Big Seven on his upcoming album. However, released in 1974, Lennon’s album Walls and Bridges did not contain all the three songs. The court had to intervene and consequently, gave $6,795 to the music publishing company.

4. Huey Lewis and the News vs. Ray Parker Jr.

The comedy film Ghostbusters, released in 1984, grossed the highest in its times and was applauded by all. But while it was a stunning box office success, few people know about the legal issues associated with its theme music.

Here is what happened. During the making of Ghostbusters, producers asked Huey Lewis to compose the theme music for the movie. However, Lewis declined because he already had his hands full working on Back to the Future, which (to no surprise) was another sci-fi movie. Thus, Ray Parker Jr. was brought in for Ghostbusters and ‘supposedly’ instructed to compose a melody in Lewis’s style.

Huey Lewis filed a case against Parker claiming that the score was copied from his 1983’s song, ‘I Want a New Drug.’ Given the costs involved in litigation and various other aspects, both the parties made a settlement in 1995 to not discuss the matter publicly. However, Lewis disclosed the details surrounding the infringement in 2001 in an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music.

5. Queen and David Bowie vs. Vanilla Ice

Freddy Mercury
Freddy Mercury in Madame Tussauds of London

Whether you know this famous music copyright infringement lawsuit or not, anyone who has listened to Vanilla Ice’s ‘Ice Ice Baby’ and Queen/ David’s ‘Under Pressure’ can tell how remarkably similar both records are.

Under Pressure was released in 1981 from the joint efforts of collaboration between Queen and David Bowie. Good melodies have a tendency to get stuck in the listeners’ minds forever but perhaps Vanilla Ice didn’t credit Under Pressure as a ‘good melody’ because less than eight years after its release, they introduced Ice Ice Baby. The Song followed the same rhythm but under a different name.

It goes without saying that Queen and Bowie were quick to act and filed an intellectual property infringement case right away. As a result, Ice had to pay an undisclosed but surely a heavy sum for the breach of law protecting musical works. And he was definitely subjected to public scorn as well. Members of Queen and Bowie were given the due credit for songwriting whereas Vanilla Ice was shamed especially for the bizarre statement that the two songs were different because “[he] added a beat between the notes.”

6. The Turtles vs. De La Soul

This case created quite a stir in the hip-hop music industry. Following is what happened.

De La Soul is an American hip hop trio best known for electric sampling and their contributions to the development of jazz rap and alternative hip hop. In 1989, two years after the band’s formation, they released their so-called masterpiece track titled ‘3 Feet High and Rising.’ The music was composed of an array of samples covering various genres from different languages. The samples spanned over decades of musical work.

Ultimately, the grand ‘Transmitting Live From Mars’ was created. However, what De La Soul failed to consider was the fact that this was a time when sampling was relatively new and hence, the laws governing the creation, distribution, and protection of work in this genre were rather loosely formed. All the snippets used in Transmitting Live From Mars didn’t receive proper clearance and so, the worst nightmare for any music artist came into existance for De La Soul.

Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman, two of the former members of The Turtles, filed a music copyright infringement case against De La Soul. The ex-Turtles claimed that the 12-second segment of their song ‘You Showed Me’ was used in Transmitting Live From Mars without their permission.

According to Volman, “Sampling is just a longer term for theft.” He also added that “Anybody who can honestly say that sampling is some sort of creativity has never done anything creative.” The Turtles demanded reimbursement of $2.5 million which was agreed upon by Prince Paul and Company in 1991. However, it is said that the complete payment was never made.

7. The Hollies vs. Radiohead


Ever heard ‘The Air That I Breathe’ by The Hollies?

This ballad, originally recorded in the 1972 album named ‘It Never Rains in California’, was said to have been duplicated by Radiohead in its 1992 song titles ‘Creep.’ The Hollies sued Radiohead for plagiarism and were found true in their claim. The complete credits for the track were given to the original songwriters Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood.

8. The Rolling Stones vs. The Verve

The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones

The Verve, an English rock band formed in 1990, had their first major breakthrough with the captivating and absorbing tune of ‘Bittersweet Symphony.’ The lyrics written by vocalist Richard Ashcroft were quite original. But the music composition was partially sourced from a symphonic version of another song – ‘The Last Time’ by Rolling Stones.

Although The Last Time came out in 1965, i.e., about 25 years ago, The Verve ought to have known that copyrights are normally held for several decades even after the original artist’s death. The Verve had acquired a license to use a five-note segment of the record after agreeing to pay half of the royalties obtained from the same. But Allen Klein, the former manager of Rolling Stones accused the Verve of breaching the agreement by using a much larger snippet than that agreed upon. The case was filed by Klein’s holding company, ABKCO Records representing the Last Time’s songwriters Keith Richards and Mick Jaggers.

The result was that Verve gave up all royalties for songwriting as well as the publishing rights to ABKCO. The song was credited to its original composers although Verve maintained the stance that they didn’t break the original agreement.

9. Salvatore Acquaviva vs. Madonna


You might be surprised to learn about this one. It shook Madonna fans worldwide after all.

In 2005, a Belgian Songwriter, Salvatore Acquaviva came forward claiming that the parts of the superhit song ‘Frozen’ had been taken from his early 1980s song ‘Ma Vie Fout Ie Camp.’ To everyone’s astonishment, the plaintiff won.

Although the judge did not consent to award damages for the plaintiff, Frozen was prohibited to be played on Belgian TV and radio. The remaining CD’s for sale were removed from the shelves as well.

10. Marvin Gaye vs. Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams

Robin Thicke
Robin Thicke
Pharrell Williams
Pharrell Williams

This lawsuit resulted in one of the largest payouts in the history of music copyright infringement.

Marvin Gaye was an American singer, songwriter and record producer. Although he ruled the music industry back in the ‘70s, his works are considered legendary even today.

In 2014, Gaye’s family filed a lawsuit against the contemporary pop artist, Robin Thicke. They claimed that Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’ was clearly copied from their beloved’s 1977 hard work ‘Got to Give It Up.’

Apart from Thicke, Pharrell William (producer and co-writer), T.I. (guest rapper) and Universal Records were also charged with infringement. However, the court proceedings turned out to be rather amusing for the plaintiff and audiences alike. While Williams set aside public manners when dealing with the prosecutors, Thicke, on the other hand, acknowledged alcohol abuse. Ultimately they were found guilty of copying Gaye’s work and were ordered to pay $7.3 million to his family. However, the amount was later reduced to $5.3 million in addition to giving 50% of the song’s royalties to the Gaye family.

These are just 10 of the most high profile music infringement cases, among the thousands that have been filled to date. This issue is one of the music industry’s biggest problems that they are proactively working to resolve, but due to the flexibility of the art form, an end to this issue is nowhere in sight.

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