Pop music is notoriously synonymous with copyright law as the same melodies are churned out year upon year.
Can one person ever own a sequence of notes? Is there so much music flying around the world today that artists are running out of new sequences of notes and chords? The music business is awash with copyright claims at the moment, and there is a lot of money at stake.
Ed Sheeran is currently under intense scrutiny as fellow British songwriter Sami Chokri has claimed the hook on Sheeran’s mega-hit Shape Of You, which makes him $6.5m a year, is a rip off of his song Oh Why. Dua Lipa has also been in trouble recently facing two copyright lawsuits over her song Levitating.
With so much furore around the issue at the moment, we thought we’d take a look at some of the biggest copyright cases in music history, and provide the links for you to decide for yourselves.
Led Zeppelin Vs. Spirit
Legendary London rock band found themselves in hot water back in 2016 when one of their most famous songs, Stairway To Heaven, was accused of being a little too similar to an instrumental on US band Spirit’s 1968 song Taurus. Both songs do have very distinct descending four chords that do sound alike, but a judge decided that the songs bore “no substantial similarities” to each other.
The song is worth an estimated $79 million, so the judge’s ruling saved the band millions in royalties.
The New Seekers Vs. Oasis
Oasis were in the middle of their heyday in the mid-90s and almost every song they churned out was received with rapturous acclaim in the UK. In 1994, their hit single Shakermaker was no different, but people soon realised it sounded a lot like the song from a 1971 Coca-Cola advert made by the band The New Seekers.
The opening line is almost exactly the same note for note, and eventually, the Gallagher brothers were forced to come to a settlement worth a reported half a million dollars. Noel Gallagher was subsequently quoted saying on behalf of the band: “We prefer Pepsi”.
Lana Del Rey Vs. Radiohead
US singer Lana Del Rey had to settle a dispute with British band Radiohead in 2018 after the band said her song Get Free was a total rip-off of one of their biggest songs, Creep. The suit was settled for an undisclosed fee, but we do know that Del Rey agreed to pay 40% of the song’s royalties while Radiohead were demanding 100%.
What makes this one even more interesting though is that Radiohead were sued themselves for taking the song from Albert Hammond’s ballad The Air That I Breathe, which was covered by The Hollies in 1974. Original songwriters Hammond and Mike Hazlewood now get a share of the Creep royalties and are credited as songwriters.
Queen & David Bowie Vs. Vanilla Ice
One of the most obvious on this list – not sure how Vanilla Ice thought he could get away with this one. The rapper had clearly lifted the instantly recognisable guitar riff from Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure and added an extra note, thinking he was being sly.
Ice ended up paying Queen and Bowie a reported $4m for the song and therefore receives all royalties for it today.
Robin Thicke & Pharrell Vs. Marvin Gaye
A legal battle between Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and Marvin Gaye raged for two years over the song Blurred Lines, which features almost exactly the same melody as Gaye’s Got To Give It Up. Thicke and Williams claimed that their song was merely inspired by the “feel” of Gaye’s song, but the jury didn’t buy it and awarded Gaye damages of around $6.5m.
This caused some tension amongst songwriters as to what now constituted a composition – was it a chord progression, or purely a similar “vibe”? It proves that each copyright case is a complicated grey area and often subjective.