7 of the most contentious music plagiarism feuds

It’s been said that there are no original ideas left in popular music — no truly original riffs or melodies and certainly no new chord progressions — so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that there are quite so many copyright claims made over songs which allegedly plagiarise other songs. In fact, for as long as rock n roll has been around, there have been feuds, and they continue right through to today.

Chuck Berry vs The Beach Boys

It’s rather extraordinary that the Beach Boys initially released Surfin U.S.A. with Brian Wilson listed as the sole composer in 1963 when the song is lifted almost note for note from Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen. It wasn’t until three years after its first release that Berry was finally listed as a composer alongside lyricist Wilson.

But this is a feud that has an apparently happy ending. Carl Wilson once said that the Beach Boys “ran into Chuck Berry in Copenhagen and he told us he loves Surfin’ U.S.A.

Well, he did compose it, after all.

Chuck Berry vs The Beatles

Chuck Berry certainly “influenced” a lot of early rock n roll bands, even The Beatles, whose Come Together features Berry’s melodies (and even some of his lyrics) in the verses. John Lennon slowed the song right down to a moody groove, but Big Seven Music Corp. (owned by Morris Levy), who was the publisher of Berry’s You Can’t Catch Me brought a lawsuit against Lennon. The case settled out of court with Lennon agreeing to record three songs owned by Levy.

But the relationship between Lennon and Levy proved a difficult one which eventually resulted in Levy releasing Roots: John Lennon Sings the Great Rock & Roll Hits without Lennon’s approval. Levy was eventually forced to pay Lennon’s label EMI $109,700 in lost revenue and $42,000 to Lennon for damage to his reputation due to shoddy sound quality and the “horrible album cover”. Copies of Roots are now very rare and can fetch up to $2000 amongst hardcore Beatles fans.

Jorge Ben Jor vs Rod Stewart

Rod Stewart’s beloved (and derided) 1978 hit Do Ya Think I’m Sexy? became the subject of a plagiarism case brought by popular Brazilian musician Jorge Ben Jor, who said that the hook of the song was lifted from his 1972 composition Taj Mahal. The case settled out of court with Stewart agreeing to donate a portion of the profits from the song to UNICEF.

Stewart wrote in his 2012 autobiography: “I held my hand up straight away. Not that I’d stood in the studio and said, ‘Here, I know we’ll use that tune from ‘Taj Mahal’ as the chorus. The writer lives in Brazil, so he’ll never find out.’ Clearly the melody had lodged itself in my memory and then resurfaced. Unconscious plagiarism, plain and simple.”

Queen and David Bowie vs Vanilla Ice

Rappers and hip-hop musicians had been sampling songs for many years before Vanilla Ice’s 1990 song Ice Ice Baby, which uses the iconic riff from the 1981 Queen and David Bowie song Under Pressure. But Ice Ice Baby drew plenty of attention when it was released.

Vanilla Ice, whose real and not-so-cool name is Robert Van Winkle initially claimed that the bassline he used was quite different to that in Under Pressure because there was one extra note in there. Van Winkle later paid Queen and Bowie and gave them songwriting credits on the track, and says that the dispute meant sampling became more acceptable in mainstream hip-hop.

Albert Hammond vs Radiohead

It’s Radiohead’s most well-known song but the band was successfully sued for lifting aspects of Creep from The Air That I Breathe, a song written by Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood and made famous by The Hollies. Because of similarities between the song’s chord progressions and melodies, Hammond and Hazlewood are now credited as co-writers of Creep.

Marvin Gaye vs Robin Thicke

In March this year, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were successfully sued by Marvin Gaye’s family for infringing copyright with their “rapey” hit Blurred Lines. Gaye’s family noticed striking similarities between Blurred Lines and Gaye’s Got to Give it Up, but the case became even more unusual when it turned to questions over how much involvement Thicke actually had in the composition process for Blurred Lines. 

Marion Sinclair vs Men At Work

In 2009, almost three decades after the song was first released, publisher Larrikin Music sued Men at Work’s Colin Hay and Ron Strykert over their composition Down Under. The publisher owns the intellectual property in Marion Sinclair’s 1932 children’s song Kookaburra, which Larrikin Music says is used in the flute solo which opens the song. The Federal Court found against Hay and Strykert in 2010, and they were forced to pay a portion of the royalties from the song to Larrikin.

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