Good artists copy; great artists steal – as the saying goes. But what’s the difference between “tipping your hat” to another musician for inspiration, and their lawyer accusing you of copyright infringement? A few million dollars, potentially.
The Verve frontman Richard Ashcroft went through a 22-year dispute over a four-second string sample of an orchestral version of the Rolling Stones’ song The Last Time. It meant he never made a penny from the band’s massive hit 1997 song Bitter Sweet Symphony – until now.
Upon receiving an Ivor Novello award for outstanding contribution to British music, Ashcroft took the opportunity to announce that in a “kind and magnanimous gesture” Mick Jagger and Keith Richards had transferred royalty rights and full songwriter credit back to Ashcroft.
This gesture of goodwill from the Stones, however, goes against an upward trend since 2015 in claims of alleged songwriter plagiarism being brought to court. From unlicensed samples to suspiciously similar melodies, take a look back at some of the historic rulings in copyright cases – which changed the face of the music industry forever.
The Verve – Bitter Sweet Symphony
When The Verve’s record label tried to clear a sample from their already-completed album Urban Hymns, the Stones’ late business manager Allen Klein, took the opportunity to negotiate “one final kill” on behalf of his band. The rights to sample the orchestral version of The Last Time on Bitter Sweet Symphony had been cleared by Decca Records, but they hadn’t thought about getting permission for the underlying composition.
Klein – who apparently wanted to discourage anyone using samples and negotiating retrospectively – would only agree if his record label ABKCO took all the publishing rights to the song. A deal was done to get Urban Hymns released, including granting Jagger and Richards songwriter credit – which would explain how both their names were later attached to a best song Grammy nomination for the track – despite it sounding nothing like the original Stones song.
The saga was finally resolved, as Ashcroft told the BBC, following recent negotiations with Klein’s son and new Stones manager Joyce Smyth; bringing an end to one of the most unjust chapters in British rock music history to a close.
“I think when you tip your hat to someone, you don’t sample them. You acknowledge them… that has always been part of music,” Ashcroft said to the BBC. “The Stones couldn’t exist if they hadn’t been allowed to tip their hat to Chuck Berry and various others,” he added.
Robin Thicke & Pharrell Williams v Marvin Gaye
The Blurred Lines case was unusual, in that the family of the late Marvin Gaye didn’t accuse Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams of direct plagiarism of lyrics or phrases. Their claim was that one of the best-selling singles of all time aped the style and “feel” of Gaye’s 1977 disco hit Got to Give It Up.
The long-running saga was watched closely by the industry, not least because if the ruling went against the biggest hit of 2013, it would set a precedent for the limits of copyright litigation.
Even before the original 2015 verdict was delivered, the case appeared to have an impact. Sam Smith gave Tom Petty and his co-writer Jeff Lynne credit on his hit Stay With Me, despite Smith’s spokesman saying any likeness to Petty’s 1989 song I Won’t Back Down was “a complete coincidence”.
In court, Williams said that in the process of co-writing the song he was “channelling… that late-70s feeling”, whereas Thicke testified that he contributed little to the songwriting. The case was brought to a close in 2018 with a final settlement of $5m to be paid to the Gaye family, along with an additional 50% share of future royalties.
The decision however did prompt a strong dissent published from judge Jacqueline Nguyen, saying that the verdict allowed the Gaye family “to accomplish what no one has done before: copyright a musical style.”
Since the Blurred Lines case, more stars appear to have pre-empted any disputes by crediting people whose work may have influenced their songs. Taylor Swift shared credit with Right Said Fred after the chorus of 2017’s Look What You Made Me Do followed the same percussive pattern of the group’s 1991 earworm I’m Too Sexy. Ed Sheeran has done likewise with the writers of TLC’s No Scrubs from 1999, after fans spotted similarities to his 2017 single Shape Of You.
John Fogerty vs John Fogerty
One of the strangest cases in music was one that Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty found himself defending in 1984, when he stood accused of self-plagiarism by his old record label.
Creedence parted ways with their label Fantasy Inc. in 1972, and Fogerty finally returned to the limelight in 1984 with The Old Man Down the Road – the first single from his comeback album Centerfield, on Warner Bros.
Having relinquished copy and publishing rights of his old Creedence songs to Fantasy, the record label alleged he’d copied his own ‘swamp-rock’ hit Run Through the Jungle with the same chorus, just with different lyrics.
Fogerty ultimately won that battle. He brought his guitar to the witness stand, and played excerpts from both songs to persuade the court that his ‘swamp-rock’ style can make different compositions sound similar, but that the two were distinct compositions.
“What’s at stake is whether a person can continue to use his own style as he grows and goes on through life,” he told Rolling Stone at the time. “I can feel Lennon, Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Leiber and Stoller standing behind me going, ‘Johnny, don’t blow this’.”
Radiohead v Lana Del Rey
The Hollies v Radiohead
In January 2018, singer Lana Del Rey claimed that Radiohead were suing her because of alleged similarities between their 1992 debut single Creep, and her song Get Free, from her 2017 album Lust for Life. The band’s publishers Warner/Chappell subsequently denied taking legal action, but did confirm requesting credit for “all writers” of Creep.
The Guardian spoke to a professional composer to analyse the songs, who noted that the chords used are rare in pop music, and the melodies bear an uncanny resemblance, although in conclusion “imagined the similarities are unintentional”.
At a Lollapalooza Brazil gig in 2018, Del Rey appeared to confirm the dispute is over, telling her audience: “Now that my lawsuit’s over, I guess I can sing that song any time I want, right?”
The irony is that Radiohead was themselves accused of plagiarism over Creep, due to a similar chord progression to The Hollies’ 1974 song The Air That I Breathe. The band ended up splitting royalties and co-writing credits with Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood.
Vanilla Ice v Queen & David Bowie
A collaboration in 1981 between Queen and David Bowie seemed like the perfect duet: and the resulting single, Under Pressure, became Queen’s second number-one hit in the UK and a third for Bowie.
But when a pompadour-sporting rapper Vanilla Ice – real name Robert Van Winkle – released the 1990 single Ice Ice Baby, which sampled John Deacon’s classic baseline, the rockers became involved in a collaboration which they had absolutely no say in joining, and didn’t receive any credit or royalties until after it became a hit.
At the time Ice’s weak argument claimed the two were different, as he added an additional note into the baseline – although he later claimed he was joking.
Ice was sued for copyright infringement and the case was settled out of court, with Bowie and Queen receiving an undisclosed sum and songwriter credit. Queen’s drummer Roger Taylor once quipped “I don’t like the song very much. He’s a white rapper from Florida… with a funny haircut.”
Danger Mouse – The Grey Album
Record producer Brian Burton – better known as Danger Mouse – rose to prominence in 2004 when he produced The Grey Album: an unofficial remix album which combined the vocals from Jay-Z’s the Black Album with instrumentals from The Beatles LP known as The White Album.
Danger Mouse claimed he just wanted to make an art project when he pressed 3,000 copies for non-retail distribution, and that he never intended to break copyright laws, just prove “such radical things can really work”. However, it gained notoriety when EMI attempted to halt the album’s distribution.
This reaction sparked music industry activists to call a protest event on 24 February 2004 known as ‘Grey Tuesday’, when hundreds of websites hosted the mashup album for download.
“I intended for it to be for friends and for people who knew my stuff.” Danger Mouse said at the time. “I figured it would get passed around, and it would be this little underground thing, but it kind of took off on its own.”
Biz Markie v Gilbert O’Sullivan
The case involving rapper Biz Markie’s Alone Again had far-reaching repercussions for the hip-hop industry and the culture of sampling.
The song used an unauthorised piano riff sample from a 1972 song from Gilbert O’Sullivan’s Alone Again (Naturally). Although Warner Bros did try to seek permission to clear the sample, singer-songwriter O’Sullivan declined. When Biz’s label released the song anyway, O’Sullivan sued Markie in 1991, resulting in a landscape-changing ruling by judge Kevin Duffy that the rapper pay $250,000 in damages, that Warner Bros was barred from selling the single or the album, and that that any future uses of samples must be pre-approved by the original artist to avoid any lawsuit.
“The Clown Prince of Hip-Hop” Biz responded a couple years later with his tongue-in-cheek album All Samples Cleared! On the cover was Biz restaging the courtroom, dressed up as both judge and defendant.
2 Live Crew
At the height of the group’s popularity, 2 Live Crew were as well known for being in court as they were for radio play. The rappers had a notorious reputation due to the sexually explicit content of their songs, such as their 1989 album As Nasty As They Wanna Be, which became the first album in history to be deemed legally obscene in a 1990 ruling – though later overturned on appeal.
However, an important case concerning what constituted “fair use” took them all the way to the Supreme Court, after the group released a clean version of that album called As Clean as They Wanna Be, with the disclaimer “This album does not contain explicit lyrics”.
It did, however, contain a track sampling Roy Orbison’s 1964 song Oh, Pretty Woman. In the rap lyrics the pretty woman in the first verse becomes “big hairy woman,” and “two timin’ woman.”
The court cleared the group of wrongdoing and ruled that as the song is a parody, the sample fell under fair use, therefore expanding the definition for future artists expressing themselves through parody.
The Winstons – The Amen Break
Regarded by some as the most influential six seconds in music, the drum solo on Amen, Brother – an instrumental B-side to The Winstons’ 1969 single Color Him Father – has reportedly been sampled over 3,000 times by artists as diverse as NWA, The Prodigy, David Bowie, Amy Winehouse and Oasis.
The segment on the track formed the foundation for jungle in the 90s, and arguably the genre of drum & bass wouldn’t today exist without it. Despite this, the writers never received any royalties, due to statute of limitations for copyright infringement in the US being just three years.
Having retired from the industry since 1971, Winstons’ singer Richard L Spencer only discovered the prolific scale of the sampling because a UK record company called him up in 1996 trying to obtain the record’s master tapes. Speaking to the BBC for a radio documentary in 2011, Spencer shared his frustration in being unable to recoup any money from its use.
“I felt invaded upon, like my privacy had been taken for granted,” he said. “The young man who played that drumbeat, Gregory Coleman, died homeless and broke in Atlanta, Georgia,” he added.
Thanks to two British DJs who listened to that interview, Spencer finally got paid for the Amen Break when the duo set up a fundraising page collecting donations of £24,000 ($30,000). It was nowhere near the tremendous debt the industry owes the Winstons, but a kind gesture from real fans of world’s most important drum loop.
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