The music industry is known for its creativity, innovation, and transformative power. Yet, it’s also a field where intellectual property rights hold a high significance. Over the years, we’ve seen several high-profile copyright infringement lawsuits that have impacted not only the artists involved but also the broader music industry. Let’s talk about five of the most famous lawsuits in the industry.

1. The Verve vs. The Rolling Stones: A ‘Bitter Sweet’ Legal Symphony

In 1997, British band The Verve released “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” a track that would become their most successful single. However, the song’s iconic string segment was sampled from an orchestral cover of The Rolling Stones’ 1965 song “The Last Time,” orchestrated by David Whitaker. When the Stones’ management claimed copyright infringement, The Verve had to relinquish all royalties and songwriting credits to Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. In a heartening turn of events, in 2019, Jagger and Richards signed over their rights, acknowledging Richard Ashcroft of The Verve as the rightful songwriter.

2. Marvin Gaye’s Estate vs. Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams: The ‘Blurred Lines’ of Copyright

“Blurred Lines,” the 2013 summer hit by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, became the center of a lawsuit brought by Marvin Gaye’s family. They claimed the song plagiarized Gaye’s 1977 hit, “Got To Give It Up.” In a verdict that stunned the music industry, a jury awarded Gaye’s estate more than $7 million in damages in 2015. The decision set a precedent about the difference between inspiration and infringement that continues to resonate in the industry.

3. George Harrison vs. Bright Tunes Music: The Unconscious Plagiarism Case

Beatles’ George Harrison was sued for copyright infringement by Bright Tunes Music over his 1970 solo hit, “My Sweet Lord.” Bright Tunes claimed the song was too similar to The Chiffons’ 1963 hit “He’s So Fine,” which they owned. Harrison admitted to the similarities but claimed any plagiarism was unconscious. Despite his defense, the court ruled against him in a landmark case, introducing the concept of “subconscious plagiarism” into the music industry.

4. Led Zeppelin vs. Spirit: The Battle of the Stairway

A case that garnered global attention involved rock giants Led Zeppelin and their timeless classic, “Stairway to Heaven.” The estate of Randy Wolfe, guitarist of the band Spirit, claimed that the opening riff of “Stairway” was too similar to Spirit’s instrumental track “Taurus.” After several years of back-and-forth legal proceedings, the US Supreme Court ultimately upheld a ruling in favor of Led Zeppelin in 2020.

5. Sam Smith vs. Tom Petty: ‘Stay With Me’ Resolves Amicably

Tom Petty’s publishers noticed similarities between Sam Smith’s Grammy-winning song “Stay With Me” and Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” However, this case was resolved amicably, with Smith’s team acknowledging the likeness and Petty and co-writer Jeff Lynne receiving 12.5% of the royalties from “Stay With Me” along with retroactive songwriting credits.

These cases underscore the delicate balance between influence and imitation in the creative process of music-making. They’ve shaped the industry’s understanding of copyright law, setting precedents that will influence how future disputes of this nature are handled.

Ed White Law is adept in the field of intellectual property protection and defense. If someone is encroaching on your intellectual property, please let us know.