Five Copyright Infringement Cases: Ed Sheeran, Led Zeppelin, Bee Gees


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).

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