“Good artists copy; great artists steal.” –attributed to Pablo Picasso
It’s all over the music news sites this week: Chart-topping pop artist Sam Smith settled amicably out of court with rock icon Tom Petty over alleged music plagiarism, agreeing to share partial writing credit with Petty for the hit song “Stay With Me?” Why? Simple: the chorus (sort of) sounds like it was borrowed from Petty’s tune “Won’t Back Down.” Smith claims the similarities were “complete coincidence.”
This is just the latest in what seems to be a long string of disputes over song plagiarism and copyright infringement. Of course, the notorious dispute between the Marvin Gaye family and Robin Thicke and Pharrell over “Blurred Lines” is still in progress. And remarkably, more than 40 years after Led Zeppelin’s iconic “Stairway to Heaven” was recorded, family members of the 60’s rock band Spirit are suing the band, claiming the song plagiarizes Spirit’s tune “Taurus.”
It might seem like musicians are trigger-happy with the plagiarism lawsuits these days, but actually this is nothing new. You see, when you have a system of musical notes and pitches, there are only so many combinations you can make with those notes before the music starts overlapping. (If the first guy/gal who came up with the standard 6-phrase blues-rock riff ever thought to sue every songwriter who copied it, he or she would have died richer than Donald Trump.) So, yeah, sometimes there’s real theft going on, and sometimes it’s just impossible to come up with a good riff without it sounding similar to some other riff. And sometimes, the courts don’t know the difference.
The point is, no music artist is immune. From Coldplay to Avril Lavigne to Johnny Cash, it seems like every major artist has been sued for infringement at some time or another. Some songwriters probably deserved to be sued, but others were just the victims of someone inadvertently having had that idea before. Here are 7 recent examples of songs you probably know that came under legal scrutiny for sounding similar to some other song.
1. Radiohead “Creep”
Yep. The song that made Radiohead famous (and the song Thom Yorke would now like to forget) came under fire for its signature four-chord progression that songwriters Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood used in their 1972 song “The Air That I Breathe,” first recorded by Hammond, then made famous by The Hollies. The lawsuit won Hammond and Hazelwood co-writing credits for “Creep.”
2. The Beach Boys “Surfin’ USA”
You can kind of understand this one. “Surfin’ USA” was a huge hit for The Beach Boys, but another rock pioneer, Chuck Berry, took umbrage at it because it sounds like a complete reworking of his 50’s hit “Sweet Little Sixteen.” The Beach Boys admitted the resemblance was intentional, but claimed it was intended as a tribute to the icon—a tip-o’-the-hat, if you will. They settled out of court by giving Berry full songwriting credits.
3. Johnny Cash “Folsom Prison Blues”
Written in 1955, this is undoubtedly one of Cash’s biggest hits, but he had to shell out a lot of “cash” to keep it. The song apparently borrows extensively from Gordon Jenkins’ “Crescent City Blues,” recorded a couple of years earlier (starts at :45 below). The similarities are so extensive that it would be difficult for anyone to dismiss them as coincidental (the first two lines of the song are even identical). Cash had to pay Jenkins $75,000 for the infraction, a huge sum for that time. But considering that a lot more people recognize “Folsom Prison Blues” than “Crescent City Blues” today, a debate club might submit the argument that plagiarism sometimes pays.
4. John Fogerty “The Old Man Down the Road”
In a remarkable irony of situation, this turned out to be Fogerty versus, um, Forgerty. You see, when John Fogerty left Credence Clearwater Revival, he gave up the rights to the songs he’d written for the band—including his own song “Run Through the Jungle.” After leaving, he wrote another song, “The Old Man Down the Road,” that apparently borrowed from his earlier tune—and ended up getting sued for plagiarizing his own song. In this case, the courts ruled in his favor.
5. George Harrison “My Sweet Lord”
The former Beatles’ signature solo hit apparently came to him as a result of him being in tune with the cosmos and picking up the vibes of other artists. Or more likely, The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine” was resting in his subconscious memory as he wrote the song. However it happened, the courts ruled the two songs were nearly identical. The “mistake” cost Harrison most of his royalties for the song.
6. The Verve “Bitter Sweet Symphony”
When sampling technology came into play in music, it opened up a whole new dimension of controversy. The signature repeating orchestral riff on The Verve’s signature hit was intentionally sampled from an orchestral version of The Rolling Stone’s song “The Last Time,” and the band had even licensed a five-note sample from the song—but even that wasn’t enough to avoid a lawsuit. The Verve had allegedly used a larger sample than they’d agreed upon, and since the song was making a lot of money, the whole thing was prime for a court battle. It ended up costing The Verve all their royalties, as well as sharing songwriting credits with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Bitter sweet, indeed.
7. Coldplay “Viva La Vida”
Not quite sure where I stand on this one. Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” is incredibly memorable on its own, from the melody to the arrangement. But when guitarist Joe Satriani heard it, he claimed a “significant portion” of the melody was lifted from his instrumental “If I Could Fly” (particularly the guitar solo starting at the :50 mark). Coldplay settled out of court, claiming coincidence. If it was, you can definitely see the irony. You can certainly hear the similarity, but considering that the solo might just as well have been improvised on the fly—and Chris Martin is apparently very purposeful in designing his melody for “Viva La Vida”—the only thing Martin would be guilty of is not having thought of it first.