20 Musicians Who Were Sued For Plagiarism

Music copyright is famously complicated, especially when it comes to sampling.

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Using more than just a "sample," creating a parody song that winds up in the Supreme Court, and subconsciously copying someone else's work can land a musician in years of legal battles. Not to mention the argument of where inspiration ends and straight-up plagiarism begins.

All things considered, it's no wonder that the majority of the artists on this list  decided to settle out of court. These are the landmark cases that have defined the music industry over the years.

Settled Out of Court

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These are the cases that were settled before getting to trial.

1.Joe Satriani vs. Coldplay

Joe Satriani playing the guitar on the cover of Guitar World Magazine

The Songs: Joe Satriani's "If I Could Fly" vs. Coldplay's "Viva La Vida"

Joe Satriani is a 15-time Grammy nominee and one of the best-selling instrumental rock guitarists of all time, and he felt that Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" sounded too much like his own "If I Could Fly." Not too much is known about the specifics of this case's ending, as the two parties decided on an undisclosed settlement in 2009.

However, Yusuf Islam (also known as Cat Stevens, who appears further down in this article) shed some light on just how touch-and-go these court cases can go. When he mentioned that he was also considering suing Coldplay for "Viva La Vida" (claiming it sounded like his song "Foreigner Suite"), Yusuf Islam said he would wait to see how Satriani's case did before taking legal action.

At the end of Satriani's case, Islam decided not to sue, highlighting just how arbitrary some of these battles can be.

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2.Gordon Jenkins vs. Johnny Cash

Gordon Jenkins looking around a theater

The Songs: Gordon Jenkins' "Crescent City Blues" vs. Johnny Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues"

Johnny Cash is a national treasure, but this one appears to be outright theft. Cash reportedly lifted the melody and some direct lyrics from Jenkins' "Crescent City Blues" for his "Folsom Prison Blues."

Jenkins sued Cash, and they settled out of court, with Cash paying Jenkins $75,000. That was in the 1970s, so that amount is closer to half a million when adjusted for inflation.

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3.The Rolling Stones vs. The Verve

The Rolling Stones perform

The Songs: The Rolling Stones' "The Last Time" vs. The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony"

A lot of these lawsuits are instigated by managers and record producers, and this legal battle is a prime example. Two separate Stones managers (Allen Klein and Andrew Oldham) claimed that The Verve used more of a song than was agreed upon for their 1997 hit "Bitter Sweet Symphony." The song's iconic strings actually come from an album of orchestral arrangements of Rolling Stones songs.

The Verve was sued for $1.7 million in royalties and credits for Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on the song. This is why, when The Verve was nominated for a Grammy for Best Rock Song in 1999, so were Jagger and Richards.

In 2019, Jagger and Richards (as well as a son of one of the managers who first filed the lawsuit) returned the song's publishing rights to The Verve. After so many years of back-and-forth, the band's lead singer, Richard Ashcroft, told NPR it was "life affirming" to finally get back the rights.

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4.Radiohead vs. Lana Del Rey

The members of Radiohead look angsty in a group photo

The Songs: Radiohead's "Creep" vs. Lana Del Rey's "Get Free"

Radiohead reportedly demanded 100% of the publishing rights to Lana Del Rey's "Get Free," as they felt the song bore a strong resemblance to "Creep." Del Rey claimed that she and her lawyers offered 40% to no avail, and both parties were prepared to go to trial.

While a final settlement was never revealed, Del Rey casually mentioned that her lawsuit had ended while she was performing onstage. After singing "Get Free," she said, "Now that my lawsuit's over, I guess I can sing that song any time I want, right?"

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5.Willie Dixon vs. Led Zeppelin

Willie Dixon sits with his upright bass, smiling

The Songs: Willie Dixon's "You Need Love" vs. Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love"

Dixon claimed that Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" was too similar to his "You Need Love." After Dixon sued for plagiarism, the two groups reached an out-of-court settlement.

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6.Queen & David Bowie vs. Vanilla Ice

The band Queen poses for a group photo

The Songs: Queen & David Bowie's "Under Pressure" vs. Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby"

It's happened to all of us. You hear that recognizable bass line and are prepared to belt out "Alright stop, collaborate and listen," but it turns out to be "Under Pressure." Though Vanilla Ice's beat seems pretty obviously lifted from Queen and Bowie's song, the groups settled for an undisclosed sum out of court. However, Vanilla Ice once claimed to have paid $4 million for the publishing rights to "Under Pressure."

Perhaps it was Vanilla Ice's airtight defense in the video below that scared Queen and Bowie into settling.

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Vanilla Ice explaining the differences between "Under Pressure" and "Ice Ice Baby"

7.Chuck Berry vs. The Beatles

Chuck Berry plays guitar and sings onstage

The Songs: Chuck Berry's "You Can't Catch Me" vs. The Beatles' "Come Together"

This suit really comes down to Morris Levy (the producer who owned the rights for Berry's "You Can't Catch Me") and John Lennon, who wrote "Come Together." When Lennon first presented the song to his bandmates, Paul McCartney reportedly noticed the similarities between "Come Together" and "You Can't Catch Me." He suggested to Lennon that they slow it down to differentiate the songs, but when it was released, Morris Levy thought they were still too similar.

Most of the lawsuits on this article come down to money, but the out-of-court settlement in this case was pretty unique. Even though the issue was that "Come Together" appeared to be inspired by a Chuck Berry song, Levy wanted Lennon to pay up by covering even more songs from Berry's publisher, Big Seven.

Presumably, a huge name like Lennon covering these songs would be good for business. However, Lennon allegedly broke the contract and did not wind up recording the agreed-upon songs.

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8.Huey Lewis and the News vs. Ray Parker Jr.

Huey Lewis on stage holding a mic stand

The Songs: Huey Lewis and the News' "I Want a New Drug" vs. Ray Parker Jr.'s "Ghostbusters"

Huey Lewis was originally supposed to compose a theme song for the movie Ghostbusters. When he declined, they brought in Ray Parker Jr. but still wanted something that sounded like Huey Lewis. Asking Parker to essentially adopt Lewis' style, he came up with the theme to Ghostbusters that we all know.

Huey Lewis claimed that Ray Parker Jr. went a little too far in adopting his style, copying the song "I Want a New Drug" to compose the theme. The matter was reportedly settled in 1995, with part of the agreement being that the two artists never talk publicly about the matter.

Well, the reason we know all these details now is because Huey Lewis reportedly spilled it all on an episode of VH1's Behind the Music. Ray Parker Jr. sued Huey Lewis for breaching their agreement. Parker later claimed that he won money from this second lawsuit out of court.

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9.The Turtles vs. De La Soul

The band The Turtles in a group shot

The Songs: The Turtles' "You Showed Me" vs. De La Soul's "Transmitting Live from Mars"

Sampling music and hip-hop go hand in hand, but that doesn't mean it always goes smoothly. When De La Soul used samples of The Turtles' "You Showed Me" in their song "Transmitting Live from Mars," without clearing it, The Turtles sued them for $2.5 million.

Howard Kaylan, one of the former members of The Turtles, said about sampling:

"Sampling is just a longer term for theft. Anybody who can honestly say that sampling is some sort of creativity has never done anything creative."

The case reportedly settled out of court for $1.7 million, though it was an important milestone in the conversation surrounding music sampling. Many people today would not argue that music sampling is an art form unto itself, but the precedent set by cases like this makes it difficult to secure the rights for song samples to this day.

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10.Chuck Berry vs. The Beach Boys

Chuck Berry strutting across the stage while playing guitar

The Songs: Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" vs. The Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA"

What happens when the artist you're inspired by calls your tribute song "plagiarism"? That's what happened when Brian Wilson, lead member of The Beach Boys, wrote "Surfin' USA" as a tribute to one of his inspirations, Chuck Berry.

The song was influenced by "Sweet Little Sixteen," which has a similar structure to "Surfin' USA." While Wilson saw it as a fun spin on Berry's song, he never received permission from the rock pioneer. The Beach Boys agreed to have Chuck Berry credited as co-writer of the song along with Brian Wilson, and the issue reportedly ended soon after.

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11.Tom Petty vs. Sam Smith

Tom Petty wearing an American flag around his neck and waving

The Songs: Tom Petty's "I Won't Back Down" vs. Sam Smith's "Stay with Me"

Sam Smith shot to fame with his song "Stay with Me," but Tom Petty wasn't very impressed. He and Jeff Lynne, who both wrote the song "I Won't Back Down," claimed that the two tracks shared too close a similarity.

The good news is that Tom Petty didn't hold any hard feelings toward Sam Smith. Petty believed that Smith was not being outright deceitful by copying the song, chalking it up to a case of subconscious plagiarism. Tom Petty released a statement, saying:

"Let me say I have never had any hard feelings toward Sam. All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door, but in this case, it got by. [...] How it got out to the press is beyond Sam or myself. Sam did the right thing, and I have thought no more about this. A musical accident, no more no less."

Remaining civil, the issue was never brought to trial. Petty and Lynne were given a 12.5% songwriting credit for "Stay with Me."

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12.The Hollies vs. Radiohead

The Hollies kneel for a group photo

The Songs: The Hollies' "The Air that I Breathe" vs. Radiohead's "Creep"

Appearing for the second time on this list, Radiohead's "Creep" came under fire when The Hollies claimed it was too similar to their song "The Air That I Breathe." Songwriters Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood are now credited on "Creep."

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13.Metallica vs. Napster

Metallica reaching toward the camera during a photo

The Issue: Metallica sued Napster for allowing their pirated music to be transferred on the service

Streaming has been one of the biggest things to ever happen to the music industry, but before Spotify and Apple Music, it was a bit more of a Wild West. Services like Napster, which offered peer-to-peer file sharing, were not regulating which files were transferred between users. This led to a new and easy way for people to pirate music, and heavy metal band Metallica wasn't having it.

The founders of Napster famously enjoyed rattling industry titans. Right after Metallica sued Napster, Shawn Fanning (one of the co-founders of the file sharing service) even wore a Metallica T-shirt to an MTV awards show. But in the end, Metallica had the last laugh. They settled and Napster would ultimately file for bankruptcy.

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Plaintiff Won in Court

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These cases were won by whoever was doing the suing.

14.Yusuf Islam vs. The Flaming Lips

Cat Stevens smiles in a candid photo

The Songs: Yusuf Islam's (then Cat Stevens) "Father and Son" vs. The Flaming Lips' "Fight Test"

Yusuf Islam (then known as Cat Stevens) brought The Flaming Lips to trial over their song "Fight Test." He wound up winning, and now receives 75% of the royalties for that song. Frontman of The Flaming Lips Wayne Coyne said to The Guardian:

"I want to go on record for the first time and say that I really apologize for the whole thing. I really love Cat Stevens. I truly respect him as a great singer-songwriter. And now, he wants his money. There was a time during the recording when we said, this has a similarity to 'Father and Son.' Then, we purposefully changed those bits. But I do regret not contacting his record company and asking their opinion. Maybe we could have gone 50-50. As it is, Cat Stevens is now getting 75 percent of royalties from 'Fight Test.' We could easily have changed the melody, but we didn't. I am really sorry that Cat Stevens thinks I'm purposefully plagiarizing his work. I am ashamed. There is obviously a fine line between being inspired and stealing. But if anyone wanted to borrow part of a Flaming Lips song, I don't think I'd bother pursuing it. I've got better things to do. Anyway, Cat Stevens is never going to make much money out of us."

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15.Marvin Gaye's heirs vs. Robin Thicke & Pharrell Williams

Marvin Gaye in a close-up portrait

The Songs: Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give it Up" vs. Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines"

Perhaps the most famous case of music copyright infringement in recent memory, heirs of Marvin Gaye sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for plagiarizing Gaye's "Got to Give it Up" in their song, "Blurred Lines." In 2015, Gaye's heirs won the $7.4 million case, though it was lowered to $5.3 million afterwards.

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16.The Chiffons vs. George Harrison

The four members of the Chiffons stand in matching dresses for a photo

The Songs: The Chiffons' "He's So Fine" vs. George Harrison's "My Sweet Lord"

Don't you hate when your subconscious costs you half a million dollars? Or is that just a George Harrison problem? A judge ruled that "He's So Fine," written by Ronnie Mack and performed by '60s girl group The Chiffons, subconsciously inspired George Harrison's chart-topper "My Sweet Lord."

The case took five years to ever get to trial, but The Chiffons had a pretty brilliant way of arguing their side. As the case slowly inched forward, The Chiffons took advantage of the time by recording their own version of "My Sweet Lord." In their own style and voices, the similarities between "He's So Fine" and "My Sweet Lord" were even more apparent.

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17.Salvatore Acquaviva vs. Madonna

Salvatore Acquaviva in a record store

The Songs: Salvatore Acquaviva's "Ma Vie Fout Ie Camp" vs. Madonna's "Frozen"

This might be my favorite copyright infringement lawsuit ever — other people have favorite copyright infringement lawsuits, too, right? So, the lawsuit starts like all the other ones. In 2005, Belgian songwriter Salvatore Acquaviva claims that Madonna's "Frozen" stole parts of his song, "Ma Vie Fout le Camp."

The judge rules in favor of Acquaviva, but no credits are exchanged, and no money is paid out. Instead, according to Acquaviva's lawyer: "Madonna must withdraw from sales all remaining discs, and orders that [Belgian] TV and radio can no longer play 'Frozen.'"

To make things even wilder, this issue was resurfaced years later in 2014 when another artist claimed that both Acquaviva's "Ma Vie Fout le Camp" and Madonna's "Frozen" actually plagiarized their song!

Best of all, this second lawsuit resulted in the ruling that all three songs were "not original enough" to have plagiarized the others. I mean, ending a nine-year ban of a Madonna song and multiple copyright claims by ruling that none of the songs are anything special? Better Call Saul wishes it could come up with this stuff.

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Defendant Won in Court

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In these cases, the artist being sued wound up winning in the end.

18.Creedence Clearwater Revival vs. John Fogerty

John Fogerty playing his guitar

The Songs: Creedence Clearwater Revival's "Run Through the Jungle" vs. John Fogerty's "The Old Man Down the Road"

Yes, those are two pictures of the same man. This unusual court battle was between the band Creedence Clearwater Revival and its former lead, John Fogerty. Often referred to as the case of "John Fogerty vs. John Fogerty," the plaintiff claimed that John Fogerty plagiarized a Creedence Clearwater Revival song...that was written and performed by John Fogerty.

The plaintiff was the record company that had parted ways with Creedence, Fogerty going off to do solo work. The label, Fantasy Inc., claimed that Fogerty's solo hit, "The Old Man Down the Road," was just a rehashed version of "Run Through the Jungle," which Fantasy Inc. owned the rights to.

As Fogerty put it to Rolling Stone magazine:

"What’s at stake is whether a person can continue to use his own style as he grows and goes on through life. I can feel Lennon, Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Leiber and Stoller standing behind me going, 'Johnny, don't blow this.'"

It's likely not a shock to anybody that the judge ruled an artist cannot plagiarize themselves.

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19.Spirit vs. Led Zeppelin

Randy California of the band Spirit points his guitar at the camera

The Songs: Spirit's "Taurus" vs. Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven"

The band Spirit claimed that Led Zeppelin stole the iconic opening riff of "Stairway to Heaven" from their song "Taurus." After two years in legal battle, Zeppelin won the case in 2016. The issue resurfaced in 2018, but the verdict was ultimately upheld. It took them four years, but Led Zeppelin successfully defended one of their greatest hits.

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20.Roy Orbison vs. 2 Live Crew

Roy Orbison wearing wayfarer shades and holding a guitar

The Songs: Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman" vs. 2 Live Crew's "Pretty Woman"

This case is a fascinating one because it is, essentially, "copied." Though the issue between 2 Live Crew's "Pretty Woman" and Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman" came down more to whether it was plagiarized. That is, whether 2 Live Crew was trying to pass off their song as completely original. Turns out, they weren't.

2 Live Crew's "Pretty Woman" is a funny retelling of Roy Orbison's classic '60s tune in the same way Weird Al Yankovic's songs are clearly parodies. 2 Live Crew even asked Orbison's record label permission, but were turned down.

The group released "Pretty Woman" anyway, and you may be thinking that it's no wonder they were sued. However, fair use law allows parodies of copyrighted works. This is why Weird Al doesn't have to ask permission from the artists he pokes fun at (even though he's stated that he does).

The case went all the way to the Supreme Court, who confirmed that "Pretty Woman" was a legitimate parody of "Oh, Pretty Woman" and protected under fair use law.

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What do you think about suing over copyright infringement? Should artists be allowed to sample freely, or are royalties a must? Let me know your thoughts in the comments!