Ed Sheeran won a copyright infringement case after being accused of ripping off the Marvin Gaye song "Let's Get It On" for his song "Thinking Out Loud." he was just the latest in a long line of musicians accused of copying other songs. From The Beatles to Vanilla Ice and Michael Bolton, these are some of the most significant copyright cases in music history:
"Come Together" - The Beatles
Music publisher Morris Levy sued John Lennon over The Beatles' 1969 hit "Come Together," alleging it copied Chuck Berry's 1956 song "You Can't Catch Me." For one, the Beatles song begins with the lyric "here come old flat-top," and Berry's song features the lyric "here come a flat-top." Lennon also admitted in an interview that Berry's song influenced him. "'Come Together' is me — writing obscurely around an old Chuck Berry thing," Lennon later said, per Far Out. "I left the line 'Here comes old flat-top.' It is nothing like the Chuck Berry song, but they took me to court because I admitted the influence once years ago." The case was settled out of court.
"My Sweet Lord" - George Harrison
Bright Tunes Music Corporation sued George Harrison in 1971, alleging he copied Ronnie Mack's song "He's So Fine" for his song "My Sweet Lord." Judge Richard Owen found Harrison guilty of "subconsciously" plagiarizing the song. "It is clear that 'My Sweet Lord' is the very same song as 'He's So Fine,'" the judge said, according to The New York Times. "This is, under the law, infringement of copyright and is no less so even though subconsciously accomplished." Harrison, who maintained he was actually inspired by the hymn "Oh Happy Day," later said he wasn't "consciously aware of the similarity" but wondered, "Why didn't I realize?" He was ordered to pay $587,000 in damages.
"How Deep Is Your Love" - The Bee Gees
Songwriter Ronald Selle sued The Bee Gees, alleging they ripped off his song "Let It End" for their song "How Deep Is Your Love," and a jury found the band guilty of copyright infringement. But in 1983, a federal judge overturned the ruling because the plaintiff never proved the Bee Gees actually had access to his song. After all, Selle admitted "Let It End" was "never published by any company," nor was it "publicly performed by anyone other than his own small band two or three times around Chicago," United Press International reported at the time. As the Financial Times notes, this case established that it's necessary for music copyright lawsuits to prove both similarities between the songs and the fact that the defendant had access to the work they're accused of copying.
"Ghostbusters" - Ray Parker Jr.
Huey Lewis sued Ray Parker Jr. over his 1984 theme for Ghostbusters, claiming it was a ripoff of his song "I Want a New Drug." The parties reached a settlement. "We decided to settle even though I think there's a lot of songs that are similar to other songs, have the same beat," Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman told GQ. "The fact that it had the same kind of bass hook doesn't in itself mean a copyright infringement." But Reitman acknowledged "I Want a New Drug" was used as a temp score during early screenings of the movie before Parker's song was added. In 2001, Parker brought his own lawsuit against Lewis for discussing the case on Behind the Music, allegedly violating a confidentiality agreement in their settlement. "I sued him, and I got money," Parker said on The Adam Carolla Show.
"Ice Ice Baby" - Vanilla Ice
In 1990, Vanilla Ice sampled the bassline from David Bowie and Queen's song "Under Pressure" in his own song "Ice Ice Baby," but without giving the original artists credit. Infamously, the rapper, whose real name is Robert Van Winkle, dubiously maintained it's actually "not the same" bassline, as his version has another beat. Bowie and the members of Queen received songwriting credit on "Ice Ice Baby" after the case was settled out of court. Winkle later admitted on the Dan Patrick Show that "of course" he sampled "Under Pressure," adding that he bought the rights to the original song because it was "cheaper than a lawsuit."
"Alone Again" - Biz Markie
In 1991, Gilbert O'Sullivan sued Biz Markie for sampling his 1972 song, "Alone Again (Naturally)" for his own song "Alone Again" without permission. Markie and his record label had been denied permission to use the sample, but it was still incorporated into the song, according to NPR. A judge sided with O'Sullivan, ordering Markie to pay $250,000 in damages and banning the further distribution of his album, I Need a Haircut. The judge also referred the case to the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District for potential prosecution, The New York Times reported, though Markie did not ultimately face charges. This is considered a landmark case establishing that musicians must receive permission to sample music.
"Love Is a Wonderful Thing" - Michael Bolton
The Isley Brothers sued Michael Bolton in 1992 over his song "Love Is a Wonderful Thing," claiming it copied from their song also titled "Love Is a Wonderful Thing." Bolton denied doing so, but a jury decided he copied from the Isley Brothers based on "a unique compilation" of elements. Bolton and others were ordered to pay $5.4 million, the "largest reported music-infringement judgement involving a single song" at the time, according to ABC News. "It's been a devastating time," Bolton told Billboard in 2001 after the Supreme Court declined to hear his appeal. "It's been an enraging time. I have no faith in the justice system."
"Blurred Lines" - Robin Thicke
Marvin Gaye's family sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams in 2013, alleging their song "Blurred Lines" was a ripoff of Gaye's 1977 track "Got to Give It Up," leading to one of the most famous music copyright cases in history. Williams denied copying the song and testified he was simply "channeling" a "late-'70s feeling." But "you can't copyright a feeling," he later told GQ. In 2015, though, a jury found Williams and Thicke infringed on the copyright and ordered them to pay more than $7 million, which was later reduced to $5.3 million. Producer Harvey Mason Jr., who is now CEO of the Recording Academy, argued to Rolling Stone this verdict set a "very dangerous precedent for anyone who has ever written a song," and a group of over 200 musicians backed an appeal, arguing the verdict "threatens to punish songwriters for creating new music that is inspired by prior works."
"Stairway to Heaven" - Led Zeppelin
In 2014, Led Zeppelin faced a copyright infringement lawsuit alleging their song "Stairway to Heaven" copied its famous opening guitar riff from the song "Taurus" by Spirit. A jury ruled in favor of Led Zeppelin in 2016, finding the songs were "not intrinsically similar." In 2018, an appeals court ordered a new trial, but instead, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the original verdict in 2020. In the process, the appeals court overturned a precedent known as the "inverse ratio rule," which attorney Ed McPherson told Variety was a "terrible rule" that created a situation where there was a "lesser standard to prove copyright infringement" if it could be shown that the defendant had "a lot of access" to the original material they are alleged to have copied.
"Dark Horse" - Katy Perry
Rapper Marcus Gray, a.k.a. Flame, sued Katy Perry in 2014, alleging her song "Dark Horse" ripped off his song "Joyful Noise." A jury in 2019 ruled Perry was liable for copyright infringement, ordering her and others to pay $2.8 million. In 2020, though, a judge vacated this decision, finding that the "signature elements of the eight-note ostinato in 'Joyful Noise' is not a particularly unique or rare combination." This came a week after the verdict in favor of Led Zeppelin was upheld in the "Stairway to Heaven" case. In 2022, an appeals court upheld the ruling in favor of Perry. "Allowing a copyright over this material would essentially amount to allowing an improper monopoly over two-note pitch sequences or even the minor scale itself, especially in light of the limited number of expressive choices available when it comes to an eight-note repeated musical figure," the court said.