Look, there are only so many musical notes, chords and riffs that a person can string together into a song. So over the course of decades, there's bound to be a little, er, borrowing here and there. Long before sampling made lawsuits the lingua franca that bonded so many disparate musicians together, artists were suing other musicians for plagiarism and copyright infringement. Lawsuits against hip hop groups are countless, but here are 11 rock groups who've been taken to court for plagiarism, from Radiohead to Coldplay to Avril Lavigne.
Johnny Cash's reputation as an iconic songwriter, singer and performer remains unimpeachable, but he was forced to pay composer Gordon Jenkins $75,000 for using lyrics and melody from Jenkins' 1953 track "Crescent City Blues" (starts at 0:45 below) as the basis for his own 1955 song "Folsom Prison Blues." Cash changed the song's theme from a lonely woman looking to escape to a prison tale of murder, but the lyrics, including the classic opening lines, "I hear the train a-comin, it's rollin' 'round the bend" were similar enough to warrant a lawsuit.
Few musicians are more vital to the groundwork of rock n' roll more than Chuck Berry, whose guitar riffs and lyrics influenced damn near every musician who listened to them. In 1973, Berry's publishing company sued John Lennon, claiming certain lines and melodies for "Come Together" were taken from Berry's 1956 track, "You Can't Catch Me." As part of the settlement, Lennon agreed to record three songs owned by publisher Morris Levy, including a cover of "You Can't Catch Me" for Lennon's 1975 covers album Rock 'N' Roll. It also led to a messy, years-long lawsuit between Levy and Lennon, culminating in the release of the rare Lennon bootleg Roots: John Lennon Sings the Great Rock & Roll Hits.
One of Rod Stewart's most famous songs takes its vocal hook from Brazilian musician Jorge Ben's 1976 track "Taj Mahal" (heard at 0:38 below). After Ben sued Stewart, the British singer agreed to give a percentage of the song's proceeds to UNICEF. In his autobiography (via SongFacts), Stewart said, "I held my hand up straight away. Not that I'd stood in the studio and said, 'Here, I know we'll use that tune from 'Taj Mahal' as the chorus. The writer lives in Brazil, so he'll never find out.' Clearly the melody had lodged itself in my memory and then resurfaced. Unconscious plagiarism, plain and simple." Blues singer Taj Mahal would later cover Ben's song on "Jorge Ben," completing the musical circle of life.
After hearing the question, "What children's song is contained in the song 'Down Under'?" on a popular Australian game show, Larrikin Music, owners of the copyright for the 1932 children's song "Kookaburra," successfully sued EMI Music and Men at Work in 2009 for infringement. The case went all the way up to the High Court of Australia (their Supreme Court), with the court ruling against the band and awarding Larrikin 5 percent of royalties from 2002 onward.
Frontman Colin Hay said in a statement, "It is indeed true, that [flautist] Greg Ham, (not a writer of the song) unconsciously referenced two bars of Kookaburra… during live shows after he joined the band in 1979, and it did end up in the Men At Work recording. [But] it was inadvertent, naive, unconscious, and by the time Men At Work recorded the song, it had become unrecognizable. I believe what has won today is opportunistic greed, and what has suffered, is creative musical endeavor."
Ray Parker, Jr. scored an Oscar nomination for his theme song to Ghostbusters, but one person not enthused by the song's reception was Huey Lewis. The popular '80s singer sued Parker and Columbia Pictures, claiming the song bore a striking resemblance to Huey Lewis and the News' "I Want a New Drug" from earlier that year. The parties settled out of court, though Lewis' alleged breach of the confidentiality agreement—he discussed the case on VH1's Behind the Music in 2001—led to Parker suing Lewis.
Discussing the film in Premiere magazine years later, the film's producers admitted that Lewis declined their offer to write the theme song and, upon hiring Parker, provided him with "I Want a New Drug" to help him write the theme song.
Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Run Through the Jungle" vs. John Fogerty's "The Old Man Down the Road"
After swamp-rock icons Creedence Clearwater Revival broke up in 1972, frontman John Fogerty owed eight more albums to his label Fantasy Records. Fogerty gave up his Creedence publishing rights to Fantasy head Saul Zaentz in exchange for getting out of his contract, but was later sued by Zaentz, who claimed that Fogerty's song "The Old Man Down the Road" plagiarized CCR's "Run Through the Jungle." Yup, John Fogerty was sued for plagiarizing John Fogerty. Fogerty won the lawsuit, but was forced to settle a defamation charge out of court by Zaentz for his track "Zanz Kant Danz," a thinly-veiled attack on the label owner that was later changed to "Vanz Kant Danz."
Look carefully at the writing credits of Radiohead's 1992 breakout hit and you'll see Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood, the writers of Hammond's 1973 ballad "The Air That I Breathe." The pair successfully sued the band for similarities in chord progression and vocal melodies, earning co-writer credit.
Oasis' Gallagher brothers have had their share of lawsuits, but the most high-profile one occurred when 1970s Australian pop group the New Seekers sued the Britpop group, noting similarities between their 1971 hit "I'd Like to Teach the World To Sing," which became ubiquitous after Coca-Cola used the vocal melody in a worldwide ad campaign, and Oasis' 1994 song "Shakermaker." Oasis reportedly settled with the New Seekers for $500,000. Noel Gallagher didn’t seem too phased by it, incorporating lines from both the Coca-Cola and New Seekers’ version in a live performance of "Shakermaker" and ending the song with, "Now we all drink Pepsi."
1970s singer/songwriter Yusuf Islam (né Cat Stevens) sued the Flaming Lips, claiming that "Fight Test," the Lips' opening track from 2002's Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots, was too similar to his 1970 song "Father and Son." Lips frontman Wayne Coyne admitted as much in interviews, apologizing to Stevens and telling the Guardian, "There was a time during the recording when we said, this has a similarity to 'Father and Son.' Then we purposefully changed those bits. But I do regret not contacting his record company and asking their opinion... I am ashamed. There is obviously a fine line between being inspired and stealing." Stevens now gets 75 percent of all royalties from the song.
When Avril Lavigne released her 2007 hit "Girlfriend," she presumably didn't expect a lawsuit from '70s power-pop group the Rubinoos. Tommy Dunbar, the band's founder, filed suit against Lavigne and "Girlfriend" co-writer Dr. Luke, among others, claiming his band's "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend" "bore striking resemblances" to Lavigne's hit. Lavigne's manager told Billboard that the suit "has no basis. There's nothing similar [between the two songs]. Our musicologist says there is no similarities of melody, choral progression or meter," while the singer herself wrote on her MySpace page that she "had never heard this song in my life" and "all songs share similar lyrics and emotions. As humans we speak one language." Lavigne eventually reached an “undisclosed settlement” with the group.
In 2008, instrumental guitarist Joe Satriani sued Coldplay, claiming that the latter's "Viva La Vida" used "substantial original portions" of his 2004 song "If I Could Fly." Coldplay said that any similarities were "entirely coincidental, and just as surprising to us as to him." Satriani would later settle with the group for an undisclosed amount, though Coldplay did not have to admit any wrongdoing.
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