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  1. Pop Eats Itself

    By Ellis Cashmore

  2. Original or Copy?

    Throughout pop music history, many acclaimed artists have been accused, both rightly and wrongly, of plagiarism. Naturally, artists are inspired by other musicians and a song from one genre can resemble that of another. Ed Sheeran’s recent case has put this issue into the spotlight. In this timeline, author of The Destruction and Creation of Michael Jackson Ellis Cashmore highlights the most scandalous moments in music history when artists have grappled for original songwriting credit.

    To compare for yourselves, click on the relevant song’s title and you can listen.

  3. 1963: First Appropriation

    In the early 1960s, black artists were used to having their work “appropriated” by white artists. When a white band, The Beach Boys, released their hit song "Surfin' U.S.A.”, few noticed its resemblance to a 1958 record on the Chess label by black artist Chuck Berry. But the likeness to Berry’s now-famous “Sweet Little Sixteen” was so pronounced that a case ensued. Consequently, in 1966, the Beach Boys gave Berry’s publisher, Arc Music, credits on the tune. This was the first plagiarism case of its kind in pop music history. Berry later claimed that the Beatles’ song "Come Together" copied parts of his 1956 "You Can't Catch Me". The opening line of the former is “Here come old flat top” and this is also a line in Berry’s song. However, over the years, Berry himself was also accused of plagiarism.

    Sweet Little SixteenSurfin' USA

  4. 1971: Subconscious Plagiarism

    George Harrison’s 1970 “ My Sweet Lord” has distinct echoes of the melody in “He’s So Fine,” the 1962 hit by the American band, The Chiffons. Harrison was found guilty of "subconscious plagiarism" in 1971 and ordered to pay damages. Harrison insisted he did not copy the Chiffons’ song, but acknowledged that he was influenced by "Oh Happy Day" by the Edwin Hawkins Singers.

    He’s So FineMy Sweet Lord

  5. 1985: Cooling and Drooling

    American blues singer Willie Dixon sued Led Zeppelin over plagiarism. Dixon claimed the lyrics of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love” closely resembled Dixon’s composition “You Need Love,” which was recorded by Muddy Waters as a single for Chess Records in 1962. Dixon’s tune had the lines, “I ain’t fooling / You need schooling / Baby, you know you need cooling / Woman, way down inside / Woman, you need love”. Led Zeppelin’s contained, “You’ve been cooling / Baby, I’ve been drooling / All the good times I’ve been misusing / Way, way down inside I’m gonna give you my love”. It was settled, but more problems lay ahead for Zeppelin — see 2016.

    You Need LoveWhole Lotta Love

  6. 1990: Vanilla Ice, Baby?

    Vanilla Ice, aka Robert Van Winkle, scored a smash hit with his “Ice Ice Baby.” He had the distinction of being the first solo white rap artist to make an impact. The melody and lyrics of the song seemed original enough, but its thumping bassline sounded too much like that of the collaborative effort by David Bowie and Queen, “Under Pressure.” Van Winkle soon had a lawsuit on his hands because Bowie and Queen claimed there was a copyright infringement. The case was settled with Bowie and all members of Queen being credited as co-composers of Van Winkle’s “Ice Ice Baby.” At the time, the idea of different songwriters taking credit even though they may never have worked together (or even met) was novel, though, today, this is commonplace.

    Under PressureIce Ice Baby

  7. 1995: Who You Wanna Call?

    Producers of the 1984 comedy film, “Ghostbusters,” asked Huey Lewis and the News to write the film’s theme song, but Lewis declined and the offer went to Ray Parker Jr, who wrote the now-famous theme song with the iconic “Who you gonna call?” But the song’s riff (i.e. its recognizable catchy musical phrase) sounded similar to the melody of Lewis' “I Want a New Drug.” Lewis and Parker reached a settlement in 1995, but in 2001, Lewis broke a confidentiality agreement that was part of the settlement, prompting Parker to sue him.

    I Want a New DrugGhostbusters

  8. 2008: Live the Life

    Guitarist Joe Satriani sued Coldplay for using “substantial portions'' of his 2004 song “If I Could Fly” for their hit “Viva La Vida.'' Coldplay’s tune was among the biggest sellers of the year and won the band many awards—the band denied plagiarism. The case was eventually settled out of court, and the terms of the settlement were not made public. But it was thought that Coldplay had agreed to give Satriani a songwriting credit on “Viva La Vida,” and that he would receive royalties from the song's sales.
    “Viva La Vida” also had similar elements to Yusuf Islam’s "Foreigner Suite". In 2017, the German electronic band Kraftwerk pointed out that Coldplay's song, "Talk" resembled parts of their song "Computer Love."

    If I Could FlyViva La Vida

  9. 2009: Making a Star

    Cameroonian musician Manu Dibango filed lawsuits against both Michael Jackson and Rihanna for taking parts of his “Soul Makossa” without permission. Jackson, he said, used parts on the 1983 hit “Wanna Be Startin' Something.” Rihanna later sampled the Jackson hit and asked Jackson for permission, but not Dibango – who took them both to court. Ironically, the publicity changed Dibango’s life for the better, as he pointed out: “I was invited by the musical fraternity in the United States to play all over the country. Suddenly, I was a star.”

    Soul MakossaWanna Be Startin’ Somethin

  10. 2015: Blurring Lines

    Blurred Lines,” a 2013 song by Robin Thicke (feat. Pharrell Williams) was the subject of a long court case that concluded in 2018 when a judge ordered Thicke and Williams to pay nearly $5m to Marvin Gaye’s estate. Gaye’s family had sued Thicke and Williams for infringement of copyright of Gaye’s 1977 “Got to Give It Up”. The rapper —T.I. — was also featured on the song, but was cleared. Gaye’s estate won a percentage of the royalties of “Blurred Lines”.

    Got to Give It UpBlurred Lines

  11. 2016: Not Intrinsically Similar

    Led Zeppelin’s singer Robert Plant apparently saw the American band Spirit play in Birmingham, England in 1970. Years later, Spirit claimed Zeppelin had taken a prominent chord sequence on its 1968 tune “Taurus,” and used it for the opening riff of their “Stairway to Heaven.” After a six-day trial in 2016, the jury rejected the claim that lead guitarist and singer Jimmy Page and Robert Plant had plagiarized the song. Evidence went so far as to feature Page’s sizable record collection, but the jury found the two songs to be “not intrinsically similar”. For technical reasons, the case dragged on and the British rockers were not cleared until four years later, in 2020.

    TaurusStairway to Heaven

  12. 2020: The Old Gum Tree

    A Sydney judge ordered Australian band Men at Work to pay 5% of the royalties for their 1980s hit “Down Under” to Larrikin Music. Larrikin Music held the copyright for the song “Kookaburra Sits in the Old GumTree”, Marion Sinclair’s 1934 children's song about a kingfisher native to Australia. The track has since become a well-known folk song and is often performed in schools. Sinclair died in 1988, but Larrikin Music filed a copyright lawsuit asking for 60%. In 1983, “Down Under” and the album it was on, Business As Usual, topped the Australian, American and British charts. The case had a tragic coda: Greg Ham — who played flute on “Down Under” — died in 2012 after struggling with alcohol and fellow Men at Work member, Jim Hay, died in 2010. His son argued that the anxiety brought on by the case contributed to both deaths.

    Kookaburra Sits in the Old GumTreeDown Under

  13. 2022: Sue and Be Sued

    British band Radiohead sued Lana Del Rey over her song “Get Free,” which the band argued borrowed too heavily from its 1993 hit “Creep”. Perversely, Radiohead had been sued over the very same song. Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood, who wrote The Hollies’ 1974 hit “The Air That I Breathe,” argued that the song itself borrowed from them. Hammond and Hazlewood received a writer’s credit on “Creep”. Radiohead rejected Del Ray’s offer of 40% of the song's royalties, but the two parties eventually settled peaceably.

    The Air That I BreatheCreep Get Free

  14. 2022: Not Deliberately

    In April 2022, Ed Sheeran won a British court battle over his hugely successful “Shape of You” after being accused of plagiarizing little-known songwriters Sami Chokri and Ross O’Donoghue’s “Oh Why”. It was concluded that Sheeran had “neither deliberately nor subconsciously” copied their song. However, in 2017, he credited writers of the TLC song “No Scrubs” to his song “Shape of You” after similarities had been heard. No legal case was brought against him then. Also in 2017, Sheeran settled with songwriters of the Matt Cardle tune “Amazing” after they accused Sheeran of taking parts for his song “Photograph”. After that, Sheeran was the subject of several plagiarism cases.

    Oh WhyShape of You

  15. 2023: Not Plagiarism

    Ed Sheeran successfully demonstrated his originality as a songwriter and won his case in a New York court, where, it was claimed, he had the temerity to tamper with greatness. The relatives of Marvin Gaye (1939-84) contended that Sheeran had copied some of Gaye’s canonical 1973 tune “Let’s Get It On” for his own “Thinking Out Loud.” Gaye’s song was co-written with Ed Townsend and, over the years, has engendered nearly 60 covers. It was alleged Sheeran and his co-writer Amy Wadge copied parts for their song. But after a week-long hearing, the jury decided that Sheeran had not.

    Let’s Get It OnThinking Out Loud.

    [Bella Bible edited this piece.]

  16. Credits Written by Ellis Cashmore
    Produced by Atul Singh
    Art and design by Lokendra Singh
    Images courtesy of Shutterstock and Creative Commons