Rod Stewart has been accused of it. So was Johnny Cash. Even two of the Beatles were found guilty of doing it. We’re talking about music plagiarism — a topic that was in the news recently when Tom Petty was awarded songwriting royalties for Sam Smith’s hit “Stay With Me” because it sounded too much like a slow-motion version of Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” With a finite number of notes, chords, and combinations to go around in the music world, it often seems inevitable that some songs will sound like others. But when is a composition simply inspired by another, and when is it a blatant ripoff? Here are nine music plagiarism cases that resulted in a well-known musician paying a fine. You be the judge.
1) “Crescent City Blues” by Gordon Jenkins (1953) vs. “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash (1956)
There’s no denying that several of the lyrics and the rhythm of one of Johnny Cash’s biggest hits, “Folsom Prison Blues,” sounds like they were lifted straight from Gordon Jenkins’ “Crescent City Blues.” When the Cash single was released and climbed up the charts, Jenkins said nothing, but when it was re-released it again on Cash’s 1968 At Folsom Prison album, Jenkins sued him for copyright infringement.
The conflict was settled out of court with Cash agreeing to pay Jenkins a sum of $75,000. Years later, he told a Canadian magazine that he hadn’t heard the Jenkins song for the first time until he served in the Air Force, and that he “wasn’t trying to rip anybody off.” Whatever the truth is, one thing’s for certain — if it hadn’t been for Johnny Cash, few people would have become aware of Jenkins’ slow, unmemorable song.
2) “You Can’t Catch Me” by Chuck Berry (1956) vs “Come Together” by the Beatles (1969)
“Come Together” actually got its start as a campaign song for Timothy Leary, who ran for governor of California in 1969 and asked John Lennon to write a song to match his campaign’s slogan, “Come together, join the party.” When he was arrested for marijuana possession his political dreams came to a halt, and Lennon reworked the “gobbledygook”as he called it with new lyrics to be included on the Beatles’ album Abbey Road.
As a nod to one of his musical childhood heroes, Chuck Berry, the lyrics in “Come Together” refer to “old flat top, groovin’ up slowly” — a character Berry referenced in his 1956 street racing song, “You Can’t Catch Me.” Both songs also sound musically similar — enough that Morris Levy, the owner of Big Seven Music Corporation (the publisher of “You Can’t Catch Me”) sued Lennon in 1973 for plagiarism. The case settled out of court with Lennon agreeing to record covers of three Big Seven Music Corp. songs: “You Can’t Catch Me,” “Ya Ya,” and “Angel Baby.”
Lennon, however, had the last laugh. When he failed to release “Angel Baby” (it was released after his death) he was sued again by Levy for breach of contract. Lennon countersued after Levy released an album of Lennon recordings without his consent and was awarded nearly $85,000.
3) “Taj Mahal” by Jorge Ben Jor (1972) vs “Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?” by Rod Stewart (1978)
It seems like an unlikely case of plagiarism — a rock star’s disco spoof inspired by an Indian-inspired composition by a Brazilian artist. And at first, “Taj Mahal” by Brazilian artist Jorge Ben Jor sounds nothing like Stewart’s late ’70s hit… until Jor starts vocalizing with a repeating “de DER de de de de.”
Jor thought the similarity was too big to ignore, and he sued. The case was settled amicably, with Stewart admitting in his 2012 autobiography that he may have “unconsciously” plagiarized Jor’s song after seeing him in concert in the 1970s.
4) “You Need Love” by Muddy Waters (1962) vs “Whole Lotta Love” by Led Zeppelin (1969)
Led Zeppelin has come under scrutiny by music fans throughout the years for producing music that sounds suspiciously like that of other artists. Right now, they’re actually involved in a plagiarism case regarding their 1971 hit “Stairway to Heaven” because the guitar opening sounds similar to Spirit’s 1968 song “Taurus.” Both bands were familiar with one another, having toured together in the late ’60s. But perhaps Zeppelin’s biggest controversy is the striking similarity between “Whole Lotta Love” and a tune written by Willie Dixon for Muddy Waters, “You Need Love.” Not only does the Zeppelin song sound like a heavy metal version of the Dixon composition, but the lyrics are nearly on par with one another: compare Dixon’s “baby, way down inside / woman, you need love / you got to have some love / I’m gon’ give you some love” to Zeppelin’s “Way down inside / baby, you need it / I’m gonna give you my love.”
In 1985, Dixon sued the band. The case was settled out of court for an undisclosed amount, and Dixon donated the money to a charitable cause that helps aspiring blues musicians. Will the same fate fall on Zeppelin for “Stairway to Heaven”? Stay tuned.
5) “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons (1958) vs “My Sweet Lord” by George Harrison (1970)
File this one under “he’s so fined.” George Harrison declared in an early ’90s interview with Goldmine magazine that the lawsuit accusing him of plagiarizing the Chiffons’ hit “He’s So Fine” would fill a book. Indeed, this was one messy case that took up a lot of Harrison’s free time in the 1970s and rendered him gun-shy about recording and releasing new material. Both songs were even dissected during the trial by music experts for each side with every note and chord progression being analyzed and compared. The gist of it is that in the end, Harrison had to cough up just over a half-million bucks to ABKCO Records, but he also secured the rights to “He’s So Fine” in the process. As a way of making fun of the whole saga and sticking up his middle finger at his accusers, he recorded the cheeky “This Song” with the music video taking place in a courtroom (and featuring a young Michael Richards for you Seinfeld fans).
6) “Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree” by Marion Sinclair (1934) vs “Down Under” by Men at Work (1981)
Ron Burgandy would approve of the flowing flute theme throughout Men at Work’s “Down Under,” but Larrikin Music did not approve of it sounding too much like a beloved Australian nursery rhyme. Generations of Australian children grew up singing “Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree” thanks to Marion Sinclair, who wrote it in 1934. Sinclair passed away in 1988, but Larrikin Music, which still holds the rights, sued songwriters Colin Hay and Ron Strykert from Men at Work for copyright infringement. The portion in question is the flute rift that plays throughout the song; it sounds suspiciously like the Kookaburra nursery rhyme. The band denied any wrongdoing, but in 2010, an Australian court ruled in favor of Larrikin and eventually 5% of the song’s royalties — estimated to be a six-figure sum — was awarded to the publishing company. Hay was vocal in stating his disappointment, but it could have been worse; the original asking price was for 40-60% of the song’s earnings.
7) “I Want a New Drug” by Huey Lewis and the News (1984) vs “Ghostbusters” by Ray Parker, Jr. (1984)
It may be safe to say that Huey Lewis and Ray Parker, Jr. are not exactly tight friends. Huey Lewis was originally asked to compose the theme to the comedy hit Ghostbusters, but declined because he was working on the Back to the Future soundtrack. So when the movie was released, he was taken aback by the fact that the theme song — written and performed by Ray Parker, Jr. — sounded a little too much like his hit “I Want a New Drug.” Both parties reached an agreement out of court, with Columbia Pictures paying Lewis an undisclosed sum. After Lewis revealed the court’s outcome during an episode of VH1’s Behind the Music, Parker countersued him for breaking his confidentiality.
Personally, I’ve always been surprised that Huey Lewis was never sued by Electric Light Orchestra by the similar first line/melody in Lewis’ “Do You Believe In Love” and ELO’s “Sweet Talking Woman” (“I was walking down a one-way street” vs “I was searching searching on a one-way street…”).
8) “Constant Craving” by k.d. lang (1992) vs “Anybody Seen My Baby?” by the Rolling Stones (1997)
OK, I cheated a bit here — this particular song mimicry actually did not lead to a lawsuit, due to some swift thinking on the Rolling Stones’ part. As the Stones were readying for a publicity push for their Bridges to Babylon album release, Keith Richards’ daughter noticed that “Anybody Seen My Baby?” sounded an awful lot like k.d. lang’s early ’90s hit, “Constant Craving,” co-written by Ben Mink. So to avoid any friction, the Stones included songwriting credit for lang and Mink on “Anybody Seen My Baby?” and everybody was happy. Lang later remarked that she was “completely honored and flattered” by the inclusion.
9) “The Last Time” by the Rolling Stones (1965) vs “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by the Verve (1997)
Then, in a twist of fate, the Stones themselves became victims of plagiarism the same year “Anybody Seen My Baby?” was released. It seems the Verve didn’t even try to hide the fact that repeating string backing in their “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was borrowed from an orchestral rendering of the Stones’ “The Last Time.” To be fair, the Verve originally asked permission to use the sampling, but ended up taking more than the agreement gave them, which is what landed them in hot water. In an unusual ruling, the band actually lost all of its royalties from the song to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards — and had to add them to the songwriting credits. Richards refused to feel guilty about the verdict, saying, “If the Verve can write a better song, they can keep their money.” Ouch.