The Music Industry’s Biggest Copyright Battles
This year saw the end of a protracted legal battle between singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran and the estate of Ed Townsend, co-writer of Martin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On, which had accused Sheeran of infringing its copyright by plagiarising the 1973 hit’s “harmonic progressions, melodic and rhythmic elements”. A jury found in favour of Sheeran in May, and an appeal by the estate was withdrawn in mid-September.
The case is far from unique – it is even Sheeran’s second such copyright battle within two years. The music industry has seen many lawsuits waged over intellectual property, often making headlines by virtue of celebrity involvement and the far-reaching implications for copyright law they carry. In this feature, we take a look at some of the most high-profile of these cases and the impact they have had on the worlds of music and IP law.
The Beach Boys vs. Chuck Berry (1963)
As we begin our round-up of cases, it is worth repeating that copyright is distinguished from other forms of intellectual property by its focus on original works of authorship – which refers specifically to tangible forms of creation such as writing or drawings. As opposed to ideas or brands, which would respectively be covered by patents or trademarks, copyrights are attached to works of literature, art and other works, guaranteeing their creators the sole rights to their use and distribution.
It is therefore little surprise that some of the most significant copyright disputes have sprung from the music industry. One of the most famous of these was one of the earliest, springing from Beach Boys’ composer Brian Wilson’s decision to repurpose Chuck Berry’s 1958 song Sweet Little Sixteen with new lyrics to create Surfin’ USA in 1963. Wilson described the song as a tribute to Berry, but ultimately conceded the stance under threat of a plagiarism lawsuit and agreed to give publishing rights to Arc Music, Berry’s own publisher.
Aside from its status as one of first high-profile plagiarism cases in music history, the case is notable for the scale of the infringement involved. Other major copyright battles in the music industry would follow, but few that involved the wholesale reproduction of a song.
Vanilla Ice vs. Queen and David Bowie (1990)
Another of the music industry’s most influential copyright battles followed the release of Vanilla Ice’s debut single Ice Ice Baby in 1990. It was clear to listeners that Ice had sampled the bass line of the then decade-old Under Pressure, a single produced in a collaboration between Queen and David Bowie. The original creators were not credited.
Copyright is distinguished from other forms of intellectual property by its focus on original works of authorship – which refers specifically to tangible forms of creation such as writing or drawings.
When the artists’ legal counsel threatened to bring a copyright infringement claim, Ice argued – in a defence of his song that has since become infamous – that the melodies of the two songs were distinct because his work added a note to the end of the sampled riff. Ice later claimed that this statement was made in jest and retracted it. The case was eventually settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, with both Bowie and the members of Queen receiving songwriting credits on the track.
Although this particular case is generally remembered today for the enduring pop culture legacy it created, it also led to new discussions concerning sampling in music, as well as the punitive nature of cases of copyright infringement and whether overt cases of plagiarism were being adequately punished. It was argued in some corners that Ice had not properly compensated Queen and Bowie for the loss of potential credibility caused by his appropriation of the melody, which means their work is now inextricably linked to him without their having been offered a chance to refuse.
Led Zeppelin vs. Willie Dixon (1972)
The influence of particular guitar riffs was also prominent in the 1972 dispute between Willie Dixon and Led Zeppelin, which first shifted the needle in the rock music genre. Led Zeppelin was heavily influenced by American blues music, as were a number of other British rock groups of the seventies. However, Willie Dixon – who had written the 1962 Muddy Waters track You Need Love – contended that their 1969 track Whole Lotta Love crossed the line into outright plagiarism of his work.
One of the main points of contention in Dixon’s lawsuit related to another song, however. He took aim at Led Zeppelin’s borrowing of the intro and outro of their 1969 song Bring It On Home from Sonny Boy Williamson’s 1966 song of the same name (which Dixon had written), including the signature guitar riff. Again, it was claimed that this was done in homage to the original artist, which Dixon disputed.
The case was ultimately settled out of court for an undisclosed sum and Dixon was added to the writing credits of Whole Lotta Love. Led Zeppelin would face further lawsuits from different parties, but the dispute with Dixon was the first to acknowledge the artistic debt that the group owed to the blues – and to put a price on it. As a formative voice in the rock music space, Led Zeppelin’s involvement in the lawsuit carried implications for creators across the genre.
The Chiffons vs. George Harrison (1976)
George Harrison was the first of the Beatles to reach No. 1 on the charts with a solo performance, that being his 1970 song My Sweet Lord. An ode to religious piety, the song also drew attention for the resemblance it bore to He’s So Fine by the Chiffons, written by Ronnie Mack and released in 1962.
Mack’s publisher, Bright Tunes Music Corporation, filed suit against Harrison in 1971, but the case did not reach trial until 1976. In the intervening years, the Chiffons recorded their own version of My Sweet Lord to draw attention to the parallels ahead of the trial. Harrison himself claimed that he based the song’s melody on the public-domain hymn ‘Oh Happy Day’, but went on to admit the similarity to He’s So Fine in his autobiography. A judge ultimately found in favour of Bright Tunes Music Corporation, finding Harrison guilty of “subconscious plagiarism” in his work and initially ordering him to pay $1,599,987 in compensation, though litigation would continue until 1998.
Beyond its significance for being one of the longest legal battles in US history and for its involvement of a former Beatle, the case set a precedent of harsher copyright standards and prompted a wave of infringement lawsuits. It also coined the concept of ‘subconscious plagiarism’, which has since reemerged in copyright cases across the breadth of the industry, including in the aforementioned Ed Sheeran lawsuits. We expect to see it crop up again many times in future litigation as the IP landscape continues to evolve.