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Famous Copyright Cases: “Name That Tune” Edition

When it comes to music, it is impossible to be completely original.  All artists have influences that affect the music that they write.  And the songs that we hear sometimes lodge themselves in the back of our minds.  So whether conscious or not, new music can always be traced back to something that has been done before.  But at what point is a song just copying someone else’s work?  There are many famous copyright cases that deal with this question.  This post will list some of the more famous examples.

George Harrison: “My Sweet Lord” (1970) vs. The Chiffons: “He’s So Fine” (1962)

In one of the most famous copyright cases, ex-Beatle George Harrison’s song came out 8 years after the Chiffons’ song.  Harrison claimed that his song was actually based on a hymn that was in the public domain.  However, he eventually lost this copyright infringement case.  The judge ruled that he had committed “subconscious plagiarism.”  Take a listen to the YouTube video linked above, which syncs the two songs together pretty smoothly.

Ray Parker Jr.: “Ghostbusters” (1984) vs. Huey Lewis and the News: “I Want a New Drug” (1984)

While I don’t personally feel these songs are as similar as other entries on this list, this famous copyright case may be more notable for what happened outside of the music.  Ray Parker Jr. famously wrote and performed the Ghostbusters theme song that everyone is familiar with.  However, he was not the first choice for the film producers.  They went to Huey Lewis, who had to decline because of his commitment to work on music for “Back to the Future.”  The story goes that Ray Parker Jr. was approached as a second choice.  The producers asked him to do something that sounded like Huey Lewis.  But did he take that direction too far?  Well (of course) the lawsuit settled, with the terms of settlement including a confidentiality agreement.  The story doesn’t end there, though.  Huey Lewis later discussed the case briefly for an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music… for which Ray Parker Jr. sued him.

Vanilla Ice: “Ice Ice Baby” (1989) vs. Queen/David Bowie: “Under Pressure” (1981)

This is probably my favorite of the famous copyright cases.  Not because of the differences or similarities between the two songs.  But strictly because of this clip of Vanilla Ice explaining how the two basslines are different.  The similarities are extremely obvious.  And Vanilla Ice settled this copyright infringement lawsuit out of court, with Queen and David Bowie getting writing credits on “Ice Ice Baby,” as well.

Red Hot Chili Peppers: “Dani California” (2006) vs. Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers: “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” (1993)

Okay, so this one may be cheating in terms of labeling it a “famous copyright case,” as there was no lawsuit filed.  But when “Dani California” was released in 2006, people were quick to point out the similarities to this popular Tom Petty tune.  The progression of the songs are very similar.  But Tom Petty told Rolling Stone that he did not think there was any “negative intent” involved, and did not sue for infringement.

Led Zeppelin: “Stairway to Heaven” (1971) vs. Spirit: “Taurus” (1968)

This case was decided in 2016.  It revolved around the question of whether perhaps the most famous rock song of all time was lifted from the band Spirit.  The theory was that Led Zeppelin had toured with Spirit, and therefore had heard their song “Taurus.”  However, a jury sided with Led Zeppelin, and did not find there to be copyright infringement.

Lana Del Rey: “Get Free” (2017) vs. Radiohead: “Creep” (1993)

These famous copyright cases “creep” up from time to time.  This most recent case involves an accusation that Lana Del Rey copied Radiohead’s most famous single.  Lana tweeted that she has offered Radiohead up to 40% from the royalties on her song.  But Radiohead has filed suit, arguing that it deserves 100%.  It will be interesting to see how this plays out.  Although, as is often the case, there is a good chance the parties will settle, leaving us wondering how things might have played out in court.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed hearing some of these mashups and learning more about famous copyright infringement cases in music.  If you are a musician, artist, writer, or other creator that wants to make sure you are protected should someone decide to rip off your work, please call me at (480) 360-3499, email me at, or complete the contact form found on this page to schedule your free initial consultation today.  I look forward to speaking with you.

Contact Kevin

P.O. Box 94208
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(480) 360-3499

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