The revelation last week that soul singer Sam Smith’s song “Stay With Me” stole its chorus from a Tom Petty song is disturbing but it’s not unprecedented. In fact, it’s rare these days for a hit singer to avoid being accused of stealing music. After all, we live in litigious times. In the case of Petty Vs. Smith, the two reached a settlement as it was clear that parts of “Stay With Me ” did sound an awful lot like Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”.
That said, the nature of musical copyright infringement cases does vary. A lot of cases of musical theft are bogus shakedowns. Some musicians just settle these out court with no admission of guilt – presumably to save themselves a long, expensive trial.
Others claim the musical infringement was all an accident – that the plagiarism was subconscious. And in other cases, samples and whole songs are outright stolen in hopes that no one will notice or care.
Of course, when it comes to hit songs, people tend to notice and definitely do care, and that’s when lawyers get involved. Here are a few of the more memorable cases of musical theft, both the alleged and the confirmed.
16. The Rolling Stones Vs. The Verve
This one was a battle between the nineties alt-rockers The Verve and music impresario Allen Klein, who owned the copyright on Stones’ songs pre-1970. Everyone was aware that the Verve song “Bittersweet Symphony” used an orchestral version of the Stones’ song “The Last Time”, despite that fact that the Verve had only contracted with Klein to use a few seconds of the tune.
They used it all, and when Bittersweet became a huge international hit, the lawsuit happened. Eventually, Klein got all the song’s royalties despite the fact the Verve wrote the lyrics.
As Verve lead singer Richard Ashcroft noted, it was The Rolling Stones’ biggest hit in 20 years. The song – now credited as Jagger/Richards/Ashcroft – continues to be covered and shows up in everything from commercials to the Super Bowl.
15. Larrikin Music Vs. Men At Work
Everyone loved the kooky song “Down Under” with its fun vibe and strange Ozzy slang. It was a massive hit in the early 1980s, topping the charts in the U.S.
But 28 years later, the copyright holders of the traditional Australian song “Kookaburra” took exception to the pop song. They claimed Down Under’s flute break was taken from their 1932 ditty.
Prior to the lawsuit, most had assumed the old “Kookaburra” song was in the public domain. It had been used by others multiple times with no legal action. But a lawsuit concluded Men At Work songwriters Colin Hay (pictured) and Ron Strykert were guilty of copyright infringement. Years of litigation resulted in the Men At Work having to pay out 5% in royalties from 2002 onwards.
14. Gordon Jenkins Vs. Johnny Cash
Cash gets a pass on this one, as he was just starting out in the business when he wrote 1955’s “Folsom Prison Blues”. He later claimed that producer Sam Phillips had assured him there were no copyright issues. There were. Songwriter Gordon Jenkins’ 1953 song “Crescent City Blues” is almost identical to “Folsom Prison Blues”, with only a few lyrical changes.
Cash settled with Jenkins in the 1970s for $75,000. Musical historians have also cited Little Brother Montgomery’s 1930s blues number “Crescent City Blues” as being similar, though Montgomery never received any compensation.
13. Huey Lewis Vs. Ray Parker Junior
The makers of Ghostbusters originally wanted Lewis to write the theme song to their 1984 comedy. But Lewis was busy with his Back To The Future theme. So they went with Ray Parker Junior.
His “Ghostbuster Theme” was a smash, sitting at #1 in the U.S. for 3 solid weeks. Huey Lewis, however, was not a fan. He noticed a suspicious similarity between Parker’s song and his hit “I Want A New Drug” of the previous year. What happened next was shrouded in mystery until 2001. It was then that Huey let slip that he’d been paid a cash settlement by Parker.
Parker immediately sued, saying that Huey Lewis’ statement had breached a confidentiality agreement between the two parties. Ironically, Parker’s lawsuit basically confirmed what Lewis had said. Who you gonna call? Your lawyer…
12. Madonna Vs. Lady Gaga
Call this one a ‘passive-aggressive’ internet fight. No lawsuit has ever been filed over Lady Gaga’s 2011 song “Born This Way” but many still think there should have been action taken.
The song does bear more than a passing resemblance to Madonna’s earlier hit “Express Yourself”. In her defense, Lady Gaga claimed she had gotten an email from Madonna’s people supporting the song. Madonna said she knew nothing of that.
The ‘fight’ was ramped up a notch when Madonna did a concert mash-up of both songs. Lady Gaga countered with a rambling concert speech about being ‘above’ the haters. In an ABC interview in 2012, Madonna got more direct, calling the song ‘reductive’ and saying she found Gaga’s song ‘very familiar’.
11. John Fogerty Vs… John Fogerty?
It’s no secret that some of John Fogerty’s songs sound similar. The guy does have a unique ‘swamp rock’ sound. But should he be sued for that? Record company owner Saul Zaentz – no fan of Fogerty – thought so.
Zaentz owned Fogerty’s songs from his Creedence Clearwater Revival days. So when Fogerty released “The Old Man Down The Road” in 1985, he saw red. Zaentz felt the song was a copy of CCR’s “Run Through The Jungle”. So he sued Fogerty for infringing on the copyright of his own song.
10. The Chiffons Vs. George Harrison
This case opened the floodgates to music copyright cases, and introduced a lot of people to the concept of ‘subconscious plagiarism’.
Harrison’s first single as a Beatle-free artist was “My Sweet Lord”, a major hit that touched on his Hare Krishna interest. The 1970 single hit #1 in the U.S. and around the world. But Harrison was also hit with a lawsuit by the owner of the Chiffons’ song “He’s So Fine”, which sounded similar. But why would a wildly talented Beatle rip-off a popular song?
The case went on for years, eventually leading to Harrison being found guilty of co-opting the song – if accidentally. He was ordered to pay $1.5 million but that was later reduced to half a million dollars. The Chiffons eventually recorded their own version of “My Sweet Lord”.
9. Chuck Berry versus The Beach Boys
It was never much of a secret that Brian Wilson was inspired by Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little 16” when he wrote the iconic surfing song “Surfin’ USA”. He even talked to reporters about it. Still, when the Beach Boys song was released in 1963, it contained only Wilson’s name as a writer.
Chuck Berry’s publishing label, Arc Music, threatened legal action. Berry was given a co-writing credit and royalties, though none of the actual Beach Boys were informed of this.
Ironically, Berry’s own piano man Johnnie Johnson eventually sued Berry for a co-writing credit for that song (and pretty much all of Berry’s pre-1966 catalogue). That 2000 lawsuit was dismissed as too much time had passed.
8. Queen/David Bowie/Mario Johnson Vs. Vanilla Ice
“Ice Ice Baby” was the first hip hop song to top the charts. It was a monster hit for the white rapper, with a bass line that was instantly danceable. However,that bassline was sampled from the David Bowie/Queen song “Under Pressure”, and the rockers did not receive credit. Eventually lawyers got involved, credit was given and money changed hands.
But there was another complainant – DJ Mario ‘Chocolate’ Johnson, who co-wrote several songs with Vanilla Ice. He sued for “Ice Ice Baby” credit. As legend has it, he and pal Suge Knight dangled Vanilla Ice off a hotel balcony to convince him to see their way. Everyone now denies it, but the story persists, and Johnson did reach a settlement with Ice.
7. The Isley Brothers Vs. Michael Bolton
Crooner Bolton maintains he never heard the Isley Brother song before he wrote “Love Is A Wonderful Thing”. After all, The Isley Brother’s ditty was a 1966 song with the same title that failed to make the Billboard Top 100. Bolton’s 1991 song made it to #4, and helped propel him to Adult Contemporary superstardom.
Nonetheless, in 1994 a court found that Bolton and co-writer Andrew Goldmark’s composition had many similarities to the Isley Brothers tune, awarding the latter all the profits from the single and 28-per-cent of the album profits. It was a huge settlement and one that Bolton attempted (and failed) to overturn several times.
6. The Hollies Vs. Radiohead
It’s hard to imagine that Radiohead’s big 1992 single “Creep” would have been based on a song by the British Invasion band The Hollies. They just seem so totally different – music wise. But many in the know (not to mention internet trolls) did notice similarities between Creep’s chord progressions and The Hollies’ 1973 ballad “The Air That I Breath”.
So did The Hollies’ Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood, who sued Radiohead and won. They now share royalties and credits. Radiohead perhaps doesn’t mind all that much. They don’t like performing the song and have gone years at a time without playing it live.
5. The Rubinoos Vs. Avril Lavigne
Did Lavigne rip-off the ’70s pop band The Rubinoos’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” for her 2007 hit song “Girlfriend”? Well, the chorus – ‘Hey! Hey! You! You! – sure sounds the same.
Lavigne, who co-wrote the song with Dr. Luke, steadfastly denied knowing the Rubinoos song (no word on if Dr. Luke knew it), but she couldn’t be bothered fighting the case. She quickly reached a ‘confidential settlement’ in which no admission of guilt was made. Her people claimed it was all done to avoid ‘the headache of a lawsuit’. Uh huh.
4. Willie Dixon versus Led Zeppelin
Zeppelin are the acknowledged kings of theft – some of it true, some not so clear. More than a dozen of the hard rock band’s songs have been traced to other songs over the years. In the case of their first hit “Whole Lotta Love”, the band never denied the lyrics were nicked from bluesman Willie Dixon’s song “You Need Love”.
Lead singer Robert Plant said he initially improvised Dixon’s lyrics, knowing full well where they came from. They just never changed them. “You only get caught when you’re successful,” he once quipped. Dixon eventually sued Led Zeppelin and won an undisclosed settlement in 1985. He also shares credit with the band.
3. The Estate of Marvin Gaye Vs. Robin Thicke
This one is messy. Robin Thicke has always talked about what a Marvin Gaye fan he is. But was he too much of a fan? The jury is still out on this one. The estate of Gaye has launched a copyright infringement suit against Thicke, claiming his megahit “Blurred Lines” is a rip-off of Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up”.
The lawsuit followed a ‘declaratory relief’ suit by Thicke and co-writer/producer Pharrell Williams after public claims by the Gaye family of theft got them angry. Really angry, apparently.
2. k.d. lang versus The Rolling Stones
Keith Richards claims the first time he became aware there was problem with the Stones’ 1997 song “Anybody Seen My Baby” was when his kids began singing lang’s “Constant Craving” overtop of his song. They fit together perfectly.
Whoops. The Stones were a little embarrassed and moved quickly to include lang and co-writer Ben Mink in the song’s credits .An upbeat lang has said she was oblivious to the two songs’ similarities till she found out she was getting credit. And who wouldn’t be cool with writing a Stones’ song?
1. Tom Petty Vs. Sam Smith
The Grammy-nominated Smith can trace his rise to fame to the initial success of his first single “Stay With Me”. Written by Smith and two others, the song brought the soul singer to the attention of millions, leading to more hits and album sales. Trouble is, the song’s chorus sounds almost identical to Tom Petty’s 1989 hit “I Won’t Back Down”. Sam and his two co-writers claim to have not been familiar with Petty’s tune, having apparently lived under a rock and never turned on a radio.
However, when the similarity was pointed out to them (presumably by Petty’s lawyers), they reached an amicable settlement. Petty and co-writer Jeff Lynne now get a credit and royalties. Petty has characterized the incident as a ‘musical accident’.