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Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Songs on Trial: 10 Landmark Music Copyright Cases


Written by Rolling Stone — Ahead of Led Zeppelin's "Stairway" showdown, we look back at historic rulings from "Surfin' U.S.A." to "Blurred Lines”.


John Fogerty vs. Creedence Clearwater Revival (1985)

"The Old Man Down the Road," by John Fogerty (1985) vs. "Run Through the Jungle," by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1970)

The Case: Fogerty's 1972 split with his Creedence Clearwater Revival bandmates and their label, Fantasy Records, was so acrimonious that Fogerty refused to perform songs from his former group for 15 years. When he released his chart-topping solo disc Centerfield in 1985, Fantasy filed a lawsuit claiming that the lead single, "The Old Man Down the Road" stole from "Run Through the Jungle," a song he wrote and recorded with Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1970.

The Verdict: Bringing his guitar to the courtroom witness stand, Fogerty ably demonstrated that the two songs were in fact different compositions. The judge ruled in his favor in 1994, and he countersued Fantasy Records president Saul Zaentz to recoup his legal costs. The case went all the way to the Supreme Court before Fogerty won and was awarded coverage for his fees in both cases.

Why It Matters: In addition to the sheer novelty of being sued for sounding too much like oneself, Fogerty's countersuit became a precedent-setting Supreme Court case that regulates how attorney fees are paid out to artists in copyright cases.


Vanilla Ice vs. Queen and David Bowie (1990)

"Ice Ice Baby," by Vanilla Ice (1989) vs. "Under Pressure," by Queen, David Bowie (1981)

The Case: To anyone with functional eardrums, it's clear that Vanilla Ice's pop-rap crossover hit sampled the bass line to the 1981 Queen/Bowie collaboration "Under Pressure." But Ice famously insisted that the two melodies are distinct because he added a beat between notes. Ice later claimed that this rationale was merely a joke. Representatives for Queen and Bowie weren't laughing and threatened a copyright infringement suit.

The Verdict: The case was settled out of court, costing Ice an undisclosed sum and earning him a not-insignificant amount of public scorn. Bowie and members of Queen all received songwriting credits on the track.

Why It Matters: "Ice Ice Baby" sparked discussion about the punitive actions taken in plagiarism cases. While copyright laws do a fair job of protecting the financial interests of artists, there are fewer measures in place to protect their creative interests. In this instance, Vanilla Ice willfully used a classic hook without permission. Though he paid the price, some argue that isn't enough to make up for the potential credibility lost by Queen and David Bowie, who are now linked to him through a collaboration they had no choice in joining.

Moreover, Ice's weak defense makes this one of the most hilarious copyright cases of all time.


De La Soul vs. The Turtles (1991)

"Transmitting Live From Mars," by De La Soul (1989) vs. "You Showed Me," by the Turtles (written by Roger McGuinn, Gene Clark) (1969)

The Case: The hip-hop collective De La Soul built their masterpiece 3 Feet High and Rising from a vast library of samples spanning genres, languages and decades. At a time when sampling was relatively new (and relatively lawless), not all of the snippets received the proper clearance. Among these was a 12-second segment from the Turtles' 1969 song "You Showed Me," used on the interlude skit "Transmitting Live From Mars." Former Turtles Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman leveled a $2.5 million lawsuit at Prince Paul and company in 1991. "Sampling is just a longer term for theft," Volman told the L.A. Times. "Anybody who can honesty say sampling is some sort of creativity has never done anything creative." Ironically, the song was written by none of the Turtles, but instead by Roger McGuinn and Gene Clark of the Byrds.

The Verdict: The case was settled out of court, with Volman and Kaylan netting a sum reportedly as high as $1.7 million. De La Soul claim they never paid that much.

Why It Matters: Rap artists believed this ruling set a dangerous precedent that would bankrupt them due to licensing or legal fees and would ultimately destroy hip-hop. The case precipitated a steady decline in sampling as labels grappled with the financial and logistical headaches of ensuring all artists were properly paid and credited. Heavily sampled albums like 3 Feet High would likely be impossible to make today.


2 Live Crew vs. Roy Orbison (1994)

"Oh, Pretty Woman," by Roy Orbison (1964) vs. "Pretty Woman," by 2 Live Crew (1989)

The Case: When their album As Nasty as They Wanna Be was met with accusations of obscenity, 2 Live Crew produced a sanitized version with the tongue-in-cheek title As Clean as They Wanna Be. This disc contained a humorous take on Roy Orbison's "Oh, Pretty Woman." Called simply "Pretty Woman," the Crew describes the titular woman in less-than-glowing terms as they rap over a sample of the original 1964 tune. Crew leader Luther Campbell sought clearance from the song's publisher, Acuff-Rose, but the company was not amused and refused permission. Undeterred, Campbell went ahead and released the song anyway.

The Verdict: The lighthearted 2 Live Crew song spawned a vicious legal battle that traveled through the judiciary system all the way to the Supreme Court. In March 1994, Campbell and the rest of the band were cleared of any wrongdoing once the justices ruled that "Pretty Woman" was a parody, and thus qualified for fair use.

Why It Matters: By expanding the definition of fair use, the Campbell v. Acuff-Rose Music, Inc. ruling served as an iron-clad defense for future artists wishing to express themselves through parody.


The Verve vs. The Rolling Stones (1997)

"Bitter Sweet Symphony," by the Verve (1997) vs. "The Last Time," by the Rolling Stones (written by Mick Jagger, Keith Richards) (1965)

The Case: The Verve had a major smash with their dreamy "Bittersweet Symphony." Vocalist Richard Ashcroft penned the song's lyrics, but the instrumental backing was partially sampled from a symphonic version of the Rolling Stones' song "The Last Time," recorded in 1965 by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra. The band had originally agreed to license a five-note segment of the recording in exchange for 50 percent of the royalties, but former Rolling Stones' manager Allen Klein claimed the Verve voided the agreement by using a larger section than they agreed to use. ABKCO Records, Klein's holding company, filed a plagiarism suit on behalf of himself and "The Last Time" songwriters Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.

The Verdict: The Verve forfeited all of the songwriting royalties and publishing rights to ABKCO, and the song credit reverted to Jagger and Richards. "We were told it was going to be a 50/50 split," recalled Verve bassist Simon Jones. "Then they saw how well the record was doing. They rung up and said we want 100 percent or take it out of the shops, you don't have much choice."

Andrew Loog Oldham, another former Stones manager who owned the actual recording that was sampled, sued the band in 1999 for $1.7 million in mechanical royalties. In the end, the Verve lost all control of their biggest hit. It was used in a Nike commercial against their wishes, earning them no money and crushing their sense of artistic integrity. "I'm still sick about it," Ashcroft said in later years. The final insult came when "Bittersweet Symphony" was nominated for a "Best Song" Grammy – with Mick Jagger and Keith Richards named on the ballot.

Why It Matters: The saga of "Bittersweet Symphony" can either be viewed as a cautionary tale or one of the most unjust chapters in musical copyright history. Though the Verve sampled a cover of a Rolling Stones' song, it was a portion written by orchestra arranger David Whitaker – who was not credited on any of the recordings.


Robin Thicke vs. Marvin Gaye (2014)

"Blurred Lines," by Robin Thicke (cowritten by Pharrell) (2013) vs. "Got to Give It Up," by Marvin Gaye (1977)

The Case: In April 2014, the family of late soul singer Marvin Gaye filed a suit alleging that Robin Thicke's 2013 pop juggernaut "Blurred Lines" infringed on Gaye's 1977 funk-fueled "Got to Give It Up." In addition to Thicke, producer and cowriter Pharrell Williams, guest rapper T.I. and Universal Records were also named in the suit. The hearings were something of a tabloid spectacle, with Thicke coming clean about his Vicodin and alcohol abuse, and Williams becoming surly with prosecutors.

The Verdict: T.I. was cleared in March 2015, but Thicke and Williams were not as lucky. A Los Angeles jury found them guilty of unlawfully copying "Got to Give It Up" and ordered the pair to pay the Gaye family $7.3 million. The judge later decreased the figure to $5.3 million, while awarding the Gayes 50 percent of the song's future royalties. It was one of the largest pay-outs in music-copyright history.

Why It Matters: Judging by the sheet music alone, "Got to Give It Up" and "Blurred Lines" are not remarkably similar. But in this case, studio arrangements were factored in. The strident walking bass, background chatter, even the cowbell — all were taken into account. The court ruled that "Blurred Lines" aped the vibe of Gaye's song, which is something that had previously been beyond copyright protection. Legal experts and artists alike fear that this sets a dangerous precedent. "The verdict handicaps any creator out there who is making something that might be inspired by something else," Pharrell said last year.

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