From Shape of You to Blurred Lines: 8 of the biggest music plagiarism cases

With more music published than ever, songwriters live in fear of the dreaded plagiarism lawsuit. Following Ed Sheeran’s win at High Court over his hit single ‘Shape of You’, Lizzy Cooney takes a look at eight other memorable cases

Thursday 07 April 2022 15:44 BST
<p>Oasis in 2006</p>

Oasis in 2006

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In recent years, the music industry has seen a growing trend of very public copyright lawsuits against popular artists.

Although Ed Sheeran just won his court battle over his hit 2017 single “Shape of You”, this is not the first time the singer-songwriter has been caught up in similar cases.

In a statement after a High Court judge ruled in favour of Sheeran, he issued a joint statement with songwriting partners Johnny McDaid and Steve Mac, in which he spoke of the toll the lawsuit had taken on his mental health.

“The stress this causes on all sides is immense,” the trio said. “It affects so many aspects of our everyday lives and the lives of our families and friends. We are not corporations. We are not entities. We are human beings. We are songwriters.

“We do not want to diminish the hurt and pain anyone has suffered through this, and at the same time, we feel it is important to acknowledge that we too have had our own hurts and life struggles throughout the course of this process.”

Sheeran is just one of many artists alleged to have infringed on other artists’ copyright. Here is a list of eight other time artists have faced legal disputes over accusations of plagiarism:

1. Queen and David Bowie vs Vanilla Ice (1990)

Released in 1989, “Ice Ice Baby” bears a striking resemblance to David Bowie and Queen’s 1981 song “Under Pressure”. The intros are so similar, it’s hard to tell which song you’re hearing.

It appears Bowie and Queen’s legal representatives felt the same way when they filed lawsuits against rapper Vanilla Ice (Robert Mathew Van Winkle) in 1990.

Vanilla Ice told an interviewer the plagiarism claim was false, because he added a note to the existing bass line melody. “I sampled it from them but it’s not the same bass line … [there is] that little bit of change. It is not the same.”

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In the end, the dispute was settled out of court. Vanilla Ice co-credited Queen and Bowie and paid them around £2.8 million. However, this case of unauthorised sampling leaves Bowie, Queen and “Under Pressure” forever linked to “Ice Ice Baby.”

Sam Smith’s ballad “Stay With Me” won Record of The Year at the 2015 Grammys, but the chorus drew comparisons to a track by Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne from 1989. A representative of Smith’s said this was a “complete coincidence”.

Petty said of the incident: “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. Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement".

The matter was settled in private, with Petty and Lynne listed as co-writers with 12.5 per cent writing credits each.

3. New Seekers vs Oasis (1994)

Perhaps the most unlikely pairing in this list: Oasis came under legal fire for allegedly ripping off New Seekers’ quaint 1971 tune, “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing.”

Liam and Noel Gallagher’s 1994 song “Shakermaker” shares very similar opening lines with the original track by the New Seekers, which was made famous by a Coca-Cola advert.

The writer of “I’d Like To Teach the World to Sing” successfully sued Oasis for £300,000 for unlicensed use of the tune. Noel later joked: “Now we all drink Pepsi.”

4. Marvin Gaye vs Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams (2014)

The lines were apparently blurred between inspiration and imitation for Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, when they wrote their 2013 hit “Blurred Lines”. The track was accused of copying the “feel” of Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song, “Got to Give It Up”, in 2014.

Whilst the sheet music looks quite different, the walking bass line, voices in the song, and themes of transformation were cited as points of similarity by Gaye’s family.

After a lengthy legal dispute, Pharrell and Thicke were ordered to pay the Gaye’s estate $5m and award them 50 per cent of all future royalties.

This was one of the biggest payouts in music plagiarism history, with critics fearing the decision would set a dangerous precedent for the future of the industry.

5. The Gap Band vs Mark Ronson (2015-2018)

The retro sound of “Uptown Funk” helped it top the charts worldwide upon its release in 2014. But many artists have claimed that Mark Ronson’s hit single with Bruno Mars made a copyright infringement on their own work.

The Gap Band got their names added to the song’s credits due to its similarities to 1979 party classic “Oops! Upside Your Head.”

In  TED Talk, Ronson compared his writing style to riffing off blues progressions, stating: “If you… copy without making it a carbon copy… it is original.”

6. The Rolling Stones vs The Verve (1997)

The Verve’s 1997 “Bitter Sweet Symphony” is adored by critics and fans alike. However, the 1997 classic also sparked a 20-year legal debacle in one of the most infamous music plagiarism cases of all time.

The Verve sampled a melody from a Rolling Stones song released in 1965, “The Last Time.” The band were licensed to use a five note segment from the song in exchange for 50 per cent of the royalties. However, Rolling Stones manager Allen Klein claimed the agreement was void as the band used a larger chunk of the song than agreed.

The Verve ended up giving The Rolling Stones 100 per cent of the royalties.

In 2019 Mick Jagger and Keith Richards gave back royalties and publishing rights, and removed themselves from the writing credits. The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft responded to this win, saying: “Thank you so much … for acknowledging me as the writer of a f****** masterpiece – it’ll live forever.”

7. Spirit vs Led Zeppelin

Journalist Michael Skidmore, a trustee of the lead singer Randy Wolfe’s estate, filed a case against Led Zeppelin after noticing the similarities between the intros to “Stairway to Heaven” and Spirit’s song “Taurus”. The band were accused of lifting notes from Spirit’s song, however, Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant insisted he had not heard the song until much later.

Plant allegedly heard “Taurus” at a 1970 show in Birmingham, but said he could not recall the performance due to his involvement in a serious car crash which occurred that night.

Professor of musicology Lawrence Ferrara testified for the defence that the chord sequence in the trial had “been around for 300 years.”

This was one of the most followed cases of music plagiarism in history. Led Zeppelin were cleared in 2016.

8. Marvin Gaye vs Ed Sheeran (2016 & 2018)

Shortly after the final verdict on the “Blurred Lines” case, another high profile musical copyright case erupted. Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud”  spent a year in the UK Top 40, was the first song to be streamed over 500 million times on Spotify, and won the Grammy Award for Best Pop Solo Performance and Song of the Year in 2016. However, the artist was accused of unlawfully lifting musical components from Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On.”

The family of Ed Townsend, who wrote the famous Gaye song, filed a lawsuit against Sheeran due to "the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic compositions” being similar. The case was dismissed in 2017, however another case arose when a relative of Gaye’s sued for $100 million in damages in 2018.

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