Influence or Plagiarism? Legal Battles in Music (w/ Radiohead, Marvin Gaye, Zomby + more)

This week we learned that the experimental rock band Radiohead are suing Lana del Rey over similarities between her track ‘Get Free’ on her 2017 album ‘Lust For Life’ and their 1992 debut single ‘Creep’. People’s reactions have been mixed on the matter, with die-hard fans of both artists rushing to their defence. Western music is essentially based on 12 notes, so among the countless variations, there have been a good many similar tracks – Radiohead themselves had to credit The Hollies as writers of Creep, due to the similarity of their 1974 track ‘The Air That I Breathe’. In any case, we thought it a good time to have a look through famous instances of legal disputes and accusations of plagiarism in music. Read on for a rundown of some of the most notable cases.

The legal side of music is a convoluted business – if you’d like to get a proper grasp on it, as well as the many other intricacies of the industry, take a look at our Music Industry courses.

Radiohead vs Lana Del Rey

The most recent high-profile case of accused plagiarism (Ed Sheeran’s ongoing disputes over many songs notwithstanding). Radiohead are reportedly suing Lana Del Rey over the similarities between ‘Get Free’ and ‘Creep’. The songs share the same chord progression and, crucially, similarities in melody. Many commentators take issue with the fact the band are (again reportedly) asking for 100% of the publishing rights. Radiohead themselves were forced to add Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood of The Hollies as co-writers, and the pair own a percentage of the publishing rights to ‘Creep’.

Both artists have famously loyal sets of fans, which is a large part of the level of attention. Listen to Consequence of Sound’s comparison below to see what you make of the similarities.

Boddika & Joy O vs Hannah Wants

A big story in 2016 was the alleged similarity between Boddika’s VIP of his own track with joy Orbison ‘Mercy’ and Hannah Wants’ ‘Found The Ground’ from her then-forthcoming Rinse release and FabricLive Mix. The dispute took on another dimension when a number of notable artists (Eclair Fifi and The Black Madonna among them) argued that the accusations were indicative of an inherent sexism in dance music – a concern that continues to bubble to this day. This piece on Thump delved into this angle in detail.

‘Found The Ground’ has largely been removed from streaming services but you can listen to ‘Mercy VIP’ below.

Marvin Gaye’s Estate vs Robin Thicke and Pharrell

The most high-profile case in recent years, until the current Radiohead and Lana Del Ray dispute, was when the estate of the late, great Marvin Gaye sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams over the similarities between their massive hit ‘Blurred Lines’ and Gaye’s 1977 track ‘Got To Give It Up’. The bassline and beat feel similar but ‘Blurred Lines’ actually followed a distinct melody. This was a landmark case though as the courts ruled in Gaye’s favour based on studio arrangement, which hitherto had not been possible. listen to the tracks’ intros below to hear for yourself.

Reark vs Zomby

In 2012 a relatively unknown producer called Reark uploaded a loop of a track called ‘Natalia’s Song’ to Soundcloud, claiming that he had written it in 2007. Minus a few changes, it is the same track as Zomby’s 2011 single of the same name. The story goes that Reark had been communicating with Zomby over Myspace, and the two agreed to collaborate on finishing the track. Zomby then took over on his own and ended up releasing it solo on 4AD. Zomby’s argument is that Reark was essentially only responsible for the vocal samples and that his changes had edited it sufficiently for him to fairly claim sole authorship.

The Rolling Stones vs The Verve

Perhaps the most famous of publishing disputes was when The Rolling Stones claimed 100% of the publishing rights to The Verve’s ‘Bittersweet Symphony’. The track is unarguably the band’s biggest and has gone on to be one of the most recognisable of the last three decades. The track samples an orchestral cover of The Rolling Stones’ ‘The Last Time’ by the Andrew Oldham Orchestra. Richard Ashcroft et al had actually cleared the sample with The Rolling Stones prior to the release, but the older band claimed that when it was released, they had used a much bigger chunk of the track than agreed. Whatever the case, giving up 100% of publishing for a sample of a cover, that sounds very little like the original song, seems quite severe. A good lesson for any artist that uses sampling to be aware of the law.

Listen to the two tracks below to see how similar they sound to your ears.

The Turtles vs De La Soul

No list looking at disputes over plagiarism can be complete without a case of straight-up sampling, especially from a time when Hip Hop was much younger and the now outdated view that sampling is devoid of creativity held greater sway. De La Soul are perhaps the best example to use as their early albums spent over a decade unavailable to buy or stream digitally. This led to them giving away their first six albums for free in 2014.

This particular example involves the sample of ‘You Showed Me’ by The Turtles on ‘Transmitting from Mars’ by De La Soul. It was just one of many samples used on all of De La Soul’s early albums that led to their digital obscurity. The Turtles were one of the strongest critics of the use of sampling however, calling it “a longer term for theft”. Listen to the skit containing the sample below.

Chuck Berry vs The Beach Boys

One of the classic examples in Rock N Roll, which as a genre is rife with derivatives of blues. the Beach Boys’ ‘Surfin USA’ bears a lot of similarity to Chuck Berry’s ‘Sweet Sixteen’. Berry was eventually credited on ‘Surfin USA’ and himself once told Brian Wilson that he loved the Beach Boys track, proof that it can sometimes end amicably.

The one thing all of these examples have in common, is that the tracks are great, demonstrating that, regardless of influence, good songwriting will always win out. If thats something you’d like to learn, check out our Songwriting course in London, or even a combined Singing and Songwriting course. For more info on this or any of our courses, don’t hesitate to contact us via email or call us on +44 20 7729 4884.

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