When one song sounds like another, did one copy, or rip off the other? Sometimes that question is fun speculation; other times, it ends up in court. The history is full of these cases, and they’re only getting more common. Whether they are decided by a judge, settled out of court, or simply acknowledged (and even brushed off), more artists are finding themselves on the receiving end of the words, “You stole my…”
Here are ten of the weirdest and most fascinating music plagiarism cases.
10 Led Zeppelin vs. Spirit
In 2014, The estate of Randy Wolfe of the band Spirit took Robert Plant and Jimmy Page to court, alleging that “Stairway to Heaven” copied their song “Taurus.” Musicologists testified that similarities between the two songs were merely a common musical device that had been in use for centuries. So, Spirit lost the case but appealed in 2018 (they lost) and again to the U.S. Supreme Court in October 2020. The case finally ended for good when the Supreme Court declined to hear the case. Perhaps SCOTUS anticipated having bigger things to deal with in the fall of 2020.
It’s also strange to imagine Robert Plant defending in court the song that he notoriously disliked passionately. No wonder he actually did little to defend it, telling BBC Radio 4, “I just had to sit there, I was instructed to sit directly opposite the jury, don’t look at them but just don’t look at anybody, just sit there for eight hours.” The famous rock star, just sitting quietly and doing what he’s told, is quite an image.
9 Vanilla Ice vs. Queen and David Bowie
Generally, sampling is not plagiarism…unless you try to claim that it’s not a sample, it just happens to sound a lot like an existing tune…
Now that sampling is as fundamental to pop music as guitars once were, the legal framework for sample releases is well established. Not so in the early days. Back in 1990, when “Ice Ice Baby” was released, sampling was all about what you could get away with, and lawsuits were frequent. Vanilla Ice thought he had a winning strategy, though.
When Queen and David Bowie threatened to sue Vanilla Ice for sampling “Under Pressure,” Vanilla Ice initially claimed that the distinctive bass riff in “Ice Ice Baby” was completely different. Vanilla Ice explained the difference using terms like “anacrusis,” and convoluted explanations about “additional note[s] on the ‘and’ of the fourth beat.” Unsurprisingly, the matter was settled out of court with Bowie and the members of Queen being given songwriting credits.
Vanilla Ice later claimed that he’d just up and bought the publishing rights to the song, but a spokesperson for Queen denied this.
8 Robbie Williams vs. Loudon Wainwright III
Determining if two pieces of music are the same is as much art as science. However, It gets a little easier when it’s the lyrics that are the same. British pop star Robbie Williams’s 1998 album I’ve Been Expecting You contains a song, “Jesus in a Camper Van,” 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.”
In 1973, Loudon Wainwright III released “I Am The Way” from his album Attempted Mustache. The song contains the lyric “Every son of God has a little hard luck sometime, especially when he goes around saying he’s the way.” There is not too much ambiguity there.
Williams claimed that he’d heard someone singing the line while in rehab. Perhaps he should’ve paid that guy too.
A judge ruled that Williams should pay 25% of the royalties for the song to Ludlow Music Inc. and issued an injunction which barred future use of the lyric, preventing future pressings of the recording.
7 Lady Gaga vs. Madonna
When Lady Gaga’s now-iconic “Born This Way” was released with much anticipation in 2011, similarities to Madonna’s “Express Yourself” were noticed right away. However, most people put the similarity down to homage, given how glowingly Gaga speaks of Madonna.
Madge’s reaction was a little more shady, though. Madonna told ABC News’ Cynthia McFadden, “There’s a lot of ways to look at it. I can’t really be annoyed by it…because, obviously, I’ve influenced her… When I heard it on the radio…I said that sounds very familiar.”
When asked how she felt about that, Madonna said it felt “reductive.” When asked what that meant, Madonna simply said, “Look it up,” before smiling slyly and taking a sip from her teacup. Even when being diplomatically vague, shade from Madonna is more devastating than any court judgment could ever be.
6 Avril Lavigne vs. The Rubinoos
When Avril Lavigne was accused of plagiarizing her 2007 hit “Girlfriend” (which you now have stuck in your head; you’re welcome!), from ’70s power-pop band The Rubinoos, the matter was eventually settled out of court. That mundane little out-of-court settlement was a real anticlimax to the war of words that preceded it, a war mostly fought over MySpace because—hello—it was 2007.
Lavigne came out swinging in a post that emphasized more than once that she’s never heard of The Roobinoos and referred to them as “some band from the ’70s”. She also pointed out that The Rolling Stones’ “(Hey You) Get Off Of My Cloud” and The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend” have the same sorts of similarities.
Her manager Terry McBride also stressed that the settlement was for the purposes of avoiding a legal battle and not an admission of wrongdoing.
5 Coldplay vs. Joe Satriani
This is another case in which the war of words is far more engrossing than the anticlimactic settlement that ended it. The allegation that Coldplay’s hit “Viva La Vida” ripped off Joe Satriani’s instrumental “If I Could Fly” ended when the case was dismissed, with some speculation that Satriani was paid off.
In the meantime, though, Satriani gave some choice emo quotes to MusicRadar.com, saying that “I felt like a dagger went right through my heart. It hurt so much.” He went on to say, “Everybody assumes I’m trying to go after these guys in Coldplay, as if I’m doing this with malice. That’s the furthest thing from my mind. I’m just doing what I need to do as an artist, to protect what’s mine, to protect those feelings I put down in song… I did everything I could to avoid a court case with this situation. But Coldplay didn’t want to talk about it. They just wanted this whole thing to go away. Maybe they figured this little guitar player guy will leave them alone….”
4 Men at Work vs. The Girl Guides
It wasn’t until the Aussie quiz show Spicks and Specks asked the question, “What children’s song is contained in the song ‘Down Under’?” that it occurred to anyone that the flute riff in “Down Under” by Men at Work sounded a lot like the nursery rhyme “Kookaburra.”
Initially, the song’s writers—Colin Hay and Ron Sykert—claimed that the song was owned by the Australian Girl Guides Association. But a judge ruled that ownership rested with a New York-based publishing company, Larrikan Music. The case became just another stoush between suits. But for a while, it seemed that the case could’ve ended with the Girl Guides receiving between 40 and 60 percent of the song’s royalties backdated to 1981, a staggering sum for a song that topped the charts in at least fifteen countries.
3 Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams vs. Marvin Gaye
When the family of Marvin Gaye accused Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” of copying the “feel and sound” of “Got To Give It Up,” a dangerous precedent was set.
At first, songwriter Pharrell Williams sought a declaratory judgment that they had not infringed on any copyright on the grounds that “only expressions, not individual ideas,” can be protected. In other words, you cannot copyright a “sound and feel.” They lost, and at a proper trial, it was found that they (Thicke and Williams) had infringed on Marvin Gaye’s copyright, where they were ordered to hand over millions to Gaye’s estate. More than 200 prominent musicians signed an amicus brief arguing that “the verdict in this case threatens to punish songwriters for creating new music that is inspired by prior works.”
The case resulted in a surge of music copyright suits. As a result, artists have now taken the precaution of crediting writers who might have a claim, even a tangential one, to protect themselves against legal action. For instance, Taylor Swift gave Right Said Fred credit for her hit “Look What You Made Me Do” because it followed a similar “rhythmic pattern” to his 1990 novelty song, “I’m Too Sexy.”
Thicke, for his part, washed his hands of the whole affair, claiming that he was high on Vicodin and had very little to do with the creation of the song. Classy.
2 The New Zealand Government vs. Eminem
So this one is not one artist suing another for producing similar-sounding songs, but it is an interesting case of copyright infringement. During New Zealand’s general election of 2014, the center-right National Party, which went on to form the next government, aired a campaign ad that sounded a lot like Eminem’s “Lose Yourself.” As we know, what “sounds like” what can be pretty subjective, except that it was revealed in the subsequent trial that the song used was purchased from a music library. Its title: “Eminem-esque.”
Eminem told Variety that should he receive any damages, the money would be donated to a charity for Hurricane Harvey relief efforts.
The sordid affair could be summed up by campaign manager Steven Joyce’s assertion that the use of the song was “pretty legal.”
Of course, the New Zealand National Party is not the only political party or politician to have used a musician’s songs at political rallies and conventions. Numerous cease and desist requests have been made, but none have gone to court—yet. Artists like Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Sam Moore, R.E.M., and others have had issues with politicians such as Barack Obama, Donald Trump, George W. Bush, Al Gore, and Ted Cruz, to name a few.
1 Tom Petty vs. Sam Smith
When Sam Smith released “Stay With Me” in 2014, they (Sam Smith goes by they/them pronouns) were contacted shortly afterward by Tom Petty’s publisher, pointing out similarities between Smith’s hit and Petty’s 1989 song “I Won’t Back Down.” Tom Petty was quick to deny any animosity, saying, “All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times, you catch it before it gets out the studio door, but in this case, it got by. Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament, and we easily came to an agreement.” As a result, Tom Petty and Jeff Lynn were given songwriting credits, as well as the royalties that go with such credits.
The baffling part was that this was not the first time artists were accused of ripping off Tom Petty. When The Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Dani California” was accused of sounding like Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance,” Petty simply said, “I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there. And a lot of rock & roll songs sound alike.” The Chilis still have their songwriting credits and royalties. And back in 2001, when The Strokes’ “Last Nite” plucked its riff from “American Girl,” Petty laughed it off, saying, “Good for [them].” The Strokes went on to tour with Petty, their songwriting credits unchallenged.
+ Le Tigre vs. Barry Mann
This list revealed a few more interesting cases, so I’ve included two bonus items! In 1961, Barry Mann and Gerry Goffin wrote “Who Put the Bomp (in the Bomp, Bomp, Bomp).” Then, 38 years later, Le Tigre released “Deceptacon.” And 22 years after that, in a case that seemingly came as a result of a random generator throwing two songs together, Mann filed a cease and desist complaint, claiming that “Deceptacon” infringed on his copyright.
What part of “Deceptacon” did Mann take issue with? Well, Le Tigre’s countersuit stated that the elements at issue were “mainly comprised of song titles and non-lexical vocables.” Non-lexical vocables are vocal noises often used as texture in music, like scatting, beatboxing, or nonsense words like “bomp.” The suit came down to the use of “bomp,” a word that Mann himself had cribbed from contemporary doo-wop artists. We might point out that that’s only Le Tigre’s side of the story, but they did win, with the parties reaching a confidential settlement with no admission of liability.
++ Olivia Rodrigo vs. Elvis Costello
Finally, let’s end with one that resulted in no hard feelings whatsoever. Except perhaps for the Twitter user with 1,500 followers who was politely dressed down by post-punk legend Elvis Costello when he pointed out the similarity between Costello’s “Pump It Up” and Olivia Rodrigo’s “Brutal.” Costello’s response deserves to be read in full (you can find it here).
Those hashtags refer to songs that Elvis Costello “made new toys” from. As for Rodrigo, Costello went so far as defending her against her accusers. He stated simply, “It’s how rock and roll works.” Sounds like he’s just grateful to have lived his prime in a pre-Blurred Lines world.