In 2011, a company named Gracenote, who keeps track of all the songs created, announced that they had just over 79 million songs in their database. A decade later, there’s no doubt that the number is significantly higher. With so many songs created, it’s not rare to find two (or more) that sound the similar, but there are some songs out there that are clear copies of another whether it’s the lyrics, beat or how it is sung. Let’s find out what happened when artists went to war over plagiarized music.
1. Queen and David Bowie vs. Vanilla Ice
Sampling is the reuse of a portion of a record in another recording. It can become a type of plagiarism if it is used without permission and that was the basis for the case against Vanilla Ice’s “Ice Ice Baby”. When the song was released in 1990, listeners could immediately hear Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” influence, but Ice was not having any of it. He claimed that the bass rift in his song was completely different from Queen’s. The musicians went to court and unsurprisingly they settled out of court and Queen and Bowie were given songwriting credit.
2. Loudon Wainwright III vs. Robbie Williams
While most cases are centered around beats and sound progression, every now and then you get someone brave enough to steal another person’s lyrics. British singer Robbie Williams released the song “Jesus in a Camper Van” in 1999 which has the lyric “I suppose even the son of God gets it hard sometimes, especially when he goes round saying I am the way.” Little did he know, or so he claims, that Loudon Wainwright III released the song “I Am the Way” in 1973 with the lyric “Every son of God has a little hard luck sometimes, especially when he goes around saying he’s the way.” The judge ruled that Wainwright III was to be paid 25% of the royalties for the song and later issued an injunction that banned future use of the lyric. As for Williams, he said that he heard someone singing the lyric when he was in rehab. Either way, it was stolen.
3. The Rubinoos vs. Avril Lavigne
When musicians go to court over plagiarism, things often get ugly, as was the case with Avril Lavigne and The Rubinoos. The Canadian pop star was accused of plagiarizing her 2007 single “Girlfriend” which not only won several awards, but it was her first song to reach number one on the Billboard Hot 100. The out of court settlement came as a surprise to many after both parties took digs at each other on Myspace. Avril started the war when she called them “some band from the ‘70” and then by saying the song was influenced by more popular bands like The Ramones and The Rolling Stones. According to her manager, they settled to avoid a legal battle, not to admit they stole the song.
4. Marvin Gaye vs. Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams
The Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams vs. Marvin Gaye was one of the most publicized plagiarism lawsuits in recent history. It was obvious that Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” was “inspired” by Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” and the family of the late singer noticed it too. At first, Williams and Thicke claimed that they had not infringed on any copyright as you can’t copyright a “sound and feel” but that was quickly dismissed. They went to trial and after several weeks, they were ordered to pay Gaye’s estate over $5 million. The result of the case led to a rise in music copyright lawsuits and many artists rushed to give others credit to avoid the same fate.
5. Tom Petty vs. Sam Smith
Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” was one of the biggest hits of 2014 and shortly after the song’s release and immediate success, Smith was contacted by Petty’s publisher who pointed out similarities between Smith’s hit and Petty’s 1989 track, “I Won’t Back Down”. The Smith party was understanding and gave Petty song writing credit and the royalties that went along with it, but many people didn’t like what Petty did. The Red Hot Chili Peppers, and The Strokes both have songs that bore more similarities to Petty hits but were never taken to task on them by Petty.
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