Some of the most high-profile copyright infringement cases happen in the music industry, where the accusation of plagiarism is as nebulous as a concept can get. It happens sometimes by accident — an “unconscious borrowing” — and other times it’s on purpose, deemed a “musical homage.”
Ed Sheeran has been at the center of the latest most-talked-about case brought by the heirs of Ed Townsend, who co-wrote “Let’s Get It On” with Marvin Gaye. Sheeran made his first court appearance earlier this week to deny the claims that his 2014 song “Thinking Out Loud” lifts key elements of Gaye’s 1973 classic.
Lawyers for the plaintiff played a recording of Sheeran interpolating “Let’s Get It On” into “Thinking Out Loud” for fun in a concert, claiming it was a “smoking gun.” But, said Sheeran in his testimony, “I mash up songs at lots of gigs. Many songs have similar chords. You can go from ‘Let It Be’ to ‘No Woman No Cry’ and switch back. And quite frankly, if I’d done what you’re accusing me of doing, I’d be quite an idiot to stand on a stage in front of 20,000 people and do that.”
The plaintiffs first filed the civil suit against Sheeran in 2017 and are being represented by a legal team including civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump. The trial is expected to last up to two weeks.
Other similar cases have been settled out of court, after a lawsuit had been filed but before a trial date, as in the cases of the Rolling Stones suing the Verve and Willie Dixon vs Led Zeppelin. More often these cases get resolved even before a suit is filed, with composers retroactively adding credits to songs to avoid the possibility of deeper legal trouble. Such was the case for Olivia Rodrigo, who added two members of Paramore to the writing credits of her hit single “Good 4 U,” after having already added Taylor Swift to the credits of “Déjà Vu.” The same happened with Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk,” which saw songwriters adding credits to the track two separate times. Earlier examples where money and/or credits changed hands without papers being filed: Vanilla Ice vs. Queen and David Bowie; the Hollies vs. Radiohead; De La Soul vs. the Turtles; Ray Parker Jr. vs. Huey Lewis; and Chuck Berry vs. Beach Boys.
But on rarer occasions, the allegedly infringing artist has no interest in settling, much less admitting a lift, as Sheeran apparently wasn’t in this instance. To help better understand the nuances of a copyright infringement trial, Variety revisits five of the most talked-about intellectual property lawsuits against musicians and songwriters that actually went all the way to a verdict… (and, in the case of appeals and judicial reversals, sometimes much further still).
Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams vs. Marvin Gaye Estate for ‘Blurred Lines’
“Blurred Lines,” the Grammy-nominated collaboration between Robin Thicke, Pharrell Wiliams and TI, was at the crux of the cultural zeitgeist when the song was released in 2013 alongside a music video featuring topless supermodels (the video itself went on to be a media dumpster fire of its own). It was also the target of Marvin Gaye’s estate who claimed that the track ripped off the soul singer’s 1977 hit “Got To Give It Up.”
After five years, the legal battle over the copyright ended in 2018 with Gaye’s family being awarded a final judgment of nearly $5 million against the song’s primary writers, Thicke and Williams.
Throughout the trial, the Marvin Gaye Estate regularly referenced a quote from Thicke’s GQ interview where he said the following: “Pharrell and I were in the studio, and I told him that one of my favorite songs of all time was Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got to Give It Up.’ I was like, ‘Damn, we should make something like that, something with that groove.’ Then he started playing a little something and we literally wrote the song in about a half-hour and recorded it.”
Both Thicke and Williams later refuted the statement, and in an interview between Williams and producer Rick Rubin (who was not involved in the creation of “Blurred Lines”), Williams said the verdict “hurt my feelings because I would never take anything from anyone.” Rubin then suggested that “Blurred Lines” sounded “nothing like ‘Got to Give It Up’,” prompting Williams to respond, “Nope. But the feeling was. You can’t copyright a feeling. All salsa songs sound pretty much the same.”
“It’s bad for music because we’ve had an understanding of what a song is, and now, based on that one case, there’s a question of what a song is,” Rubin added. “It’s not what it used to be in the past, because in the past it would be the chords, the melody and the words. It leaves us as music-makers in a really uncomfortable place making things, because we don’t know what you can do”.
George Harrison vs. the Chiffons for ‘My Sweet Lord’
“My Sweet Lord” was the first solo hit from a Beatle and was the top-selling U.K. single in 1971, though the song itself brought its own slate of problems. Harrison was ordered to pay $587,000 in 1981 for “subconsciously” plagiarizing the Chiffons‘ “He’s So Fine” (written by Ronnie Mack) during the creation of the track.
“I wasn’t consciously aware of the similarity to ‘He’s So Fine’,” Harrison wrote in his biography “I Me Mine.” “It would have been very easy to change a note here or there, and not affect the feeling of the record.”
The judge ruled Harrison had not “deliberately” copied the song’s melody, but that it was “subconsciously accomplished.” The case got more complicated when Harrison’s business manager, the late Allen Klein, bought the rights to the song — meaning Harrison paid Klein the $587,000 for the rights.
Katy Perry vs. Marcus Gray for ‘Dark Horse’
Katy Perry was sued for over $2.8 million by rapper Marcus Gray, who claimed the pop star had stolen an eight-note riff from his track “Joyful Noise” for her own rap-techno hit “Dark Horse.” After years of courtroom arguments — involving testimony from musicologists who cited two songs predating “Joyful Noise” that employed a similar melody — a jury awarded Gray the payout. But a judge later overturned that verdict, saying the melody was not “particularly unique or rare.”
Perry’s win marked a rare occasion in copyright infringement cases. It came just as Led Zeppelin was able to prevail in a suit filed by the band Spirit, which accused them of infringing their track “Taurus” for the creation of the opening riff to “Stairway to Heaven.” The judge in the Zep/Spirit case ruled the songs as “not intrinsically similar.” After that decision, the judge overseeing Perry’s case overturned the original verdict and said the material was too commonplace to be copyrighted.
Led Zeppelin vs. Spirit for ‘Stairway to Heaven’
Led Zeppelin found itself at the center of numerous plagiarism cases throughout the band’s long and storied career, but it was their victory in a suit filed by American rock group Spirit, which claimed Zeppelin had stolen one of their instrumentals for the famous opening riff of “Stairway to Heaven,” that set precedent for future copyright infringement cases.
The claims were brought to court on two separate occasions: once in 2014 when Led Zeppelin was found not guilty, and again when it was re-opened in 2018 after the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals determined that the judge had made several process errors in the original trial, which led to a new hearing being ordered.
On March 2020, the jury upheld the original verdict – saying the two tracks were not “intrinsically similar.”
The accusations were made by Michael Skidmore — a representative of the estate of Randy Wolfe, Spirit’s guitarist — who accused Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page and Robert Plant of stealing the opening guitar riff of “Stairway” from Spirit’s 1968 instrumental track “Taurus.” Led Zeppelin and Spirit played live together after “Taurus” was written, and Skidmore claimed Page had written the “Stairway” riff after hearing “Taurus” live.
As a result, the courts were prompted to revisit the traditional copyright law and rejected the previously used “inverse ratio” rule, which allows courts to impose a lower showing of substantial similarity when a high degree of access was shown.
Ronald Selle vs. Bee Gees for ‘How Deep Is Your Love’
The Bee Gees ruled the charts through the late 1970s with hits like “How Deep Is Your Love,” a Hot 100 chart-topper, and prominent song featured in the movie “Saturday Night Fever.”
A few years before the song’s release, Ronald Selle had written a song called “Let it End” as part of a band that performed in and around the Chicago area. Shortly after receiving the copyright for the song, Selle invited his fellow bandmates to a studio where the song was recorded, with Selle singing the words. He then sent the recording to numerous publishing companies but got no immediate response.
In May of 1978, Selle heard the song on the radio and confused it for his own melody, but quickly noticed the song had different lyrics. He sued Maurice, Robin, and Barry Gibb (the Bee Gees), alleging copyright infringement, and additionally accused their record label distributor Polygram and Paramount Pictures of misappropriation and copyright infringement.
The case went to a jury in 1983, with the Bee Gees saying that they had never heard the song, and there was no probable evidence that they did (since it was never officially released). The focus of the case then shifted to proving the similarities between the songs, with Selle bringing in a musicologist as his expert witness who convinced the jury that the Bee Gees did plagiarize the song.
Despite the jury siding with Selle, the judge ignored the verdict and granted the Bee Gees’ motion for a new trial on the basis that Selle had failed to prove the trio of brothers had access to “Let It End.” Selle appealed the decision and was once again overruled.
Ultimately, the case poked holes in the practice of juries making judgments on music — leading to the landmark ruling that “striking similarities” between songs are not enough to prove a case of plagiarism. Consequently, copyright infringement cases now require the accusing party to prove the defendant would have had good opportunity to hear the song before. That was a high burden of proof, for a time — before the streaming era, in which it became commonplace to post demos or micro-indie recordings on the web, where theoretically anyone could access them.