Borrowed Tracks: 10 Timeless Tunes of Copyright Infringement

Borrowed Tracks: 10 Timeless Tunes of Copyright Infringement


Nowhere is the war cry of plagiarism fiercer than in the music industry.  Below are 10 infamous songs that have subject to legal deliberation and one recent high profile song, about to be.  Take a listen to both the original and alleged infringing songs and make your own judgment. Comment below and let us know where you side.

 1.     George Harrison vs Bright Tunes Music Corp

Released in 1970, George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ quickly became entangled in legal dispute.  Bright Tunes Music Corp who owned the composition in the Chiffon’s 1962 hit ‘He’s So Fine’ alleged that Harrison had infringed their copyright by using ‘He’s So Fine’s’ distinctive musical phrasing.

Ultimately, Bright Tunes succeeded with the Judge on first instance describing the two songs musically, as “virtually identical.”

The Chiffon’s – He’s So Fine

George Harrison – My Sweet Lord

2. Roy Orbison v 2 Live Crew

With an identical opening verse and musical composition, 2 Live Crew’s ‘Pretty Woman’ was ‘substantially similar’ to Roy Orbison’s ‘Oh, Pretty Woman’ to constitute infringement.  However, the Supreme Court in Campbell v  Acuff-Rose Music, Inc the court decided that the use on the facts case was a fair transformative parody.

Roy Orbison – Oh, Pretty Woman

2 Live Crew – Pretty Woman

3. Queen & David Bowie v Vanilla Ice

Vanilla Ice always took things ‘To The Extreme’ but his unlicensed use of ‘Under Pressure’ melted his pugnacious exuberance.  Despite initially denying any similarity between the Queen and David Bowie’s ‘Under Pressure’ and his mega-hit ‘Ice-Ice Baby,’ Ice eventually came around and the two parties settled out of court.

Should Ice have stuck to with his “see there’s goes ding ding da da ding ding, ours goes ding ding da da ding ding ding, it’s not the same” argument?

Vanilla Ice’s Argument

Queen & David Bowie – Under Pressure

Vanilla Ice – Ice Ice Baby

4. Chuck Berry v The Beatles

Chuck Berry’s influence on modern rock and roll is undisputed. However, occasionally the line between homage and imitation can blur.  Eventually, settled out of court (including a requirement that Lennon include ‘You Can’t Catch Me’ in his next solo album) the line was deemed to be crossed on the Beatles’ ‘Come Together’, which had similar lyrics and musical structure to the Chuck Berry’s ‘You Can’t Catch Me.’

Chuck Berry – You Can’t Catch Me

The Beatles – Come Together

5. Jorge Ben v Rod Stewart

Jorge Ben reserved his opinion on Rod’s sexiness, but was assertive in bringing legal action for copyright infringement of the melody in his song “Taj Mahal.”  The case was settled, with Rod charitably donating royalties from the song to UNISEF.

Jorge Ben – Taj Mahal

Rod Steward – Do Ya Think I’m Sexy

6. Larrkin Music v Men at Work

‘Down Under’ was a massive hit for Australian group Men at Work in the 1980s.  It wasn’t until decades later, spurred by a quiz show question that the dispute arose.

In 2008 an Australian TV quiz show, asked the question “What children’s song is contained in the song Down Under?” The answer – Kookaburra.  Soon, Larrikin Music Publishing the owners of the 1934 composition successfully pursued legal action against the group for using the melody of the well known children’s rhythm in the flute solo on ‘Down Under.’


Men at Work – Down Under

7. Huey Lewis and the News v Ray Parker Jr

The Ghostbuster’s producers originally wanted to use Huey Lewis and the News’ ‘I Want A New Drug’ but the group declined the invitation.   Ray Parker Jr, who was commissioned to compose the movie’s theme song instead, came up with the ‘Ghostbusters Theme’ which had an uncanny resemblance to ‘I Want A New Drug.’

The group sued successfully for copyright infringement, with the terms kept somewhat confidential, save Huey Lewis’s appearance on ‘Behind the Music.’ 

Huey Lewis and the News – I Want A New Drug

Ray Parker Jr – Ghostbusters Theme

8. Joe Satriani v Coldplay

A more recent example, is the dispute between Joe Satriani and Coldplay.  Satriani alleged that Coldplay’s ‘Viva La Vida’ took “substantial original portions” from Satriani’s 2004 song ‘If I Could Fly.’ Eventually settled out of court, Yusuf Islam, aka Cat Stevens was also concerned that ‘Viva La Vida’ mimicked an earlier song of his, however he declined to purse the matter further. 

Joe Satriani – If I Could Fly

Coldplay – Viva La Vida

9. Vincent Peters v Kanye West

Vince P v Kanye West was another chance for the judiciary to study up on their hip-hop knowledge.  Virginian rapper, Vince P claimed that he had given Kanye’s manager of the time, John Monopoly a CD which contained his composition ‘Stronger.’  Vince P alleged, Mr Monopoly’s client Kanye West’s song ‘Stronger’ was substantially similar and derived from his original composition.

However the Court was not convinced.  Chief Judge Easterbrook did not consider that the use of a popular idiom and other lyrical similarities (including reference to Kate Moss) where enough to establish a claim of infringement.  The Kate Moss connection did not impress the judge who noted that “analogizing to models as shorthand for beauty is, for better or for worse commonplace in our society.”

The Court also stated that a vast number of popular songs used a variation of Friedrich Nietzsche’s well known aphorism supporting a verdict in Kanye’s favor.

Note: Vince P’s Stronger is not available online.

Kanye West – Stronger

10. Marvin Gaye v Robin Thicke

The most recent high profile infringement instance is Robin Thicke’s 2013 hit ‘Blurred Lines.’  Pending allegations from Gaye’s family that ‘Blurred Lines’ infringed Gaye’s ‘Got To Give It Up’  Thicke went on the affirmative and filed for decelatory relief that ‘Blurred Lines’ was a legitimate creation.  The counter claim from Gaye’s family not only responded to Thicke’s claim but also included allegations of biased administration by Gaye’s publisher Sony/ATV.

The ancillary allegations between Sony ATV and the Gaye family were settled, however the fundamental infringement claim is still to be determined.

Bearing in mind the outcomes in 1-9, do you think that ‘Blurred Lines’ is infringing?

Marvin Gaye – Got To Give It Up

Robin Thicke – Blurred Lines

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