In the world of popular music, the two bands that have been involved in the most plagiarism lawsuits are the Beatles and Led Zeppelin. That these two are also the first and second best-selling artists of all time might be a coincidence.
I doubt it.
Music plagiarism can be divided into two categories in the post-digital world: the stealing of musical motifs, chord progressions and melodies that are then reproduced by musicians and passed off as original creations; or sampling, which cuts the whole musician factor out of the equation, and merely drops bits of a recording into a new tune.
With sampling, the issue is pretty much cut and dried. If you sample a recording, you give credit to the original copyright holder of that recording. If you don’t, you usually get busted, and then sued. The borrowing of musical motifs is murkier terrain, and generally speaking, is much more difficult to prove.
Most recent in this variety of lawsuit is the case in which surviving members and estate representatives from the 60s band Spirit sued Led Zeppelin over alleged plagiarism of their tune “Taurus” for Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” – a case that has been ongoing since 2014 but reached a crescendo in early June. (You can read my thoughts on this case here). The decision came back unanimously in Zeppelin’s favor.
As any musician will tell you, unconscious plagiarism is entirely possible. In Western harmony, there are only so many notes, and so many possible combinations of those notes, that similarities – many of which cross cultural and geographical boundaries, and sometimes even centuries – are inevitable.
As an example, in the '90s, I discovered a new guitar tuning, based on a G7 chord, and came up with a compelling chordal motif. I rushed to band rehearsal eager to share my “creation” with my bandmates. “Dude, that’s totally ‘Kashmir’ by Led Zeppelin,” was the response. And it pretty much was, with a few modifications. By that point, I’d heard “Kashmir” in the neighborhood of 1,000 times. It was living in me. But the intellectual heist happened without my knowledge.
Plagiarism in 20th century popular music has often had racial implications. An entire generation of British musicians who’d happened to be living near ports of call benefited from the import of American blues and primal rock ‘n’ roll records coming into the country via traveling seamen.
Most of these recordings were made by African Americans, and were largely being ignored or denounced as “race records” in our own country. Budding hopefuls in Britain were blown away by what they heard, plundered the things for ideas, and birthed the British Invasion in the process.
In many cases, the Brits got rich, while the African Americans got little or nothing. Though the best of these British musicians sang the praises of their influences from the rooftops and did all they could to make it clear where the genesis of their own music came from, the playing field was never truly leveled in this regard. Bad feelings festered, and in some cases, continue to.
However, more often than not, plagiarism lawsuits are attempts to grab money from well-off artists by others who feel a bit less well-off. Which is why you don’t hear of anyone suing some unknown dude with a guitar who ripped off the chord progression from “Freebird,” or whatever.
Here are 10 notable instances where the plagiarism threat was raised, rightly, wrongly, or absurdly.
1) Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were a bit liberal in exploring the “influence” of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” for their mega-hit “Blurred Lines.” The two were ordered to pay $7.4 million in damages to the Gaye Estate. This case was interesting primarily because Gaye’s tune is a groove-based number – a beautiful one, to be sure – and what Thicke and Williams “borrowed” was primarily that groove. Still, this was a pretty blatant case of passing someone else’s work off as one’s own. They should’ve sampled the Gaye groove, given credit where it was due, and gone about their business.
2) Mark Ronson’s “Uptown Funk” (featuring Bruno Mars) is one of the bigger smashes of the past 5 years, but as it turns out, the song wasn’t necessarily wholly Ronson’s in the eyes of the law. Ronson settled out of court with members of the Gap Band, who were granted a 17 percent songwriting credit for the song, which bears a bit more than a passing resemblance to the Gap Band’s “Oops Upside Your Head”.
3) Virtuoso guitarist Joe Satriani was among the portion of the listening public not particularly enamored by Coldplay’s uber-hit “Viva la Vida,” but not necessarily because he found Chris Martin to be cloying. Satriani was ticked because he felt that the tune borrowed its melody and chord progression from his own instrumental, “If I Could Fly.” Though the tunes are similar, this one seemed like a bit of a stretch. The legal system agreed, and the case was dismissed. Back to shredding, Joe!
4) Who ya gonna call? Legal counsel! Ray Parker, Jr.’s “Ghostbusters” came close enough to Huey Lewis and The News’ “I Want A New Drug” for an out-of-court settlement to be reached.
5) George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” was deemed to have borrowed significant melodic material from the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine.” Considering the nature of Harrison’s heart-rending paean to spiritual otherness, this one always felt a bit on the cruel side.
6) John Lennon got all “Finnegan’s Wake” with some lyrics from Chuck Berry’s “You Can’t Catch Me” during the Beatles’ “Come Together.” Berry demanded his pound of flesh, and got it.
7) The Hollies demanded partial songwriting credit for Radiohead’s “Creep,” which the band felt mimicked their own “The Air That I Breathe.” I don’t really hear it. But Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood got their credit.
8) In the most surreal plagiarism suit ever, John Fogerty was sued for plagiarizing himself by Saul Zaentz and Fantasy Records, owner of the rights to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s material. Fantasy felt that the Fogerty’s solo tune “The Old Man Down the Road” sounded too much like CCR’s “Run Through the Jungle” – which made sense, since Fogerty wrote both of them. Happily, Zaentz and Fantasy lost.
9) Though it never made it to court, Rod Stewart agreed to split royalties from his tune “Forever Young” with Bob Dylan, whose own “Forever Young” deserved more than a passing nod of acknowledgement from Stewart.
10) The similarities between the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ ebullient “Dani California” and Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” are fairly obvious, and could’ve made for a plagiarism lawsuit if Petty felt like pursuing it. He didn’t. Petty told Rolling Stone that he “seriously doubted there (was) any negative intent there… It doesn’t bother me.” Nice.