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Songs Involved in Legal Wrangling

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by Steven G (subscribe)
Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler, teacher, scientist; Published author & Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published September 11th 2021
When courts and creativity collide
In a recent column I mentioned that John Fogerty was sued for plagiarising himself. This brought a couple of comments on Twitter along the lines of, "What? Really?" I was under the impression that was a commonly known fact, but maybe it's only known by music nerds, like myself.

So, I got to thinking what about other songs involved in some sort of legal issues?
legal, law, song, music
Image by David Mark from Pixabay

Now, most of the time legal issues involving music come from copyright law plagiarism, using samples without permission, stealing lyrics. Sometimes the legal case ends in a result that is confusing (the recent adjudication against Robin Thicke which sets copyright law back decades springs to mind - he lost a lawsuit when he apparently copied the "style" of a song, not the actual song itself), sometimes it takes years to sort itself out, but in our modern-day capitalist society, this is one of the prices you have to pay for attempting to be creative.

So, rules I need to like at least one of the songs at the centre of the issue. One song per artist. That's it. Some of the results of these legal cases do leave a sour taste, but it is good, especially for up-and-coming songwriters and musicians, to know where we as creators stand.

'My Sweet Lord' by George Harrison (1970)
The issue: Unconscious plagiarism of 'She's So Fine' by The Chiffons (1962)

One of the most famous of the plagiarism cases ever brought, after going through court it was decided that Harrison had "subconsciously" plagiarised the Chiffons' classic. Harrison claimed in his autobiography he was basing it on an old hymn, but did admit to the sound-alike. Eventually, he lost the suit, was ordered to pay the songwriter, then, through complex negotiations, ended up buying the rights to 'She's So Fine' anyway. I like both tracks, and, yeah, you can hear it.

'The Old Man Down The Road' by John Fogerty (1985)
The issue: Self-plagiarism of 'Run Through The Jungle' by Creedence Clearwater Revival (1970)

The problem here was that Fogerty was very young when CCR was a band and he was ripped off by an allegedly unscrupulous manager, which seemed to be all the rage in the 60s and 70s. However, Fogerty went to court with a guitar, proved the two songs were different and after many years of wrangling his former manager was forced to pay all Fogerty's legal costs. This still doesn't seem like it could be real. And both songs are classics, and I really can't hear it beyond a 'feel'.

'Bittersweet Symphony' by The Verve (1997)
The issue: Did not ask permission for using a sample of the orchestral version of 'The Last Time' by The Rolling Stones (1965)

Ask permission! The Verve blatantly used the sample. They got permission to use the song, but not the orchestral version, and it caused them to lose everything in the case. Jagger and Richards were given full song-writing credit and rights to the song, and the song was used against The Verve's wishes in a TV advert. However, unlike nearly every other case of plagiarism, the Rolling Stones eventually voluntarily gave Ashcroft (the Verve's principal song-writer) full song-writing credit and royalties back in 2015, which Ashcroft praised, and shows that the The Rolling Stones are actually good guys. I can't think of another case where that was volunteered. Both songs, by the way, are great.

'Creep' by Radiohead (1992)
The issue: Copying the chord structure of 'The Air That I Breathe' by The Hollies (1972)

Apparently, the chord structure was a very rare one, and the slow tempo matched, and so the members of Radiohead lost the suit, and had to share royalties and songwriting credits. Simple, really. Interestingly, Lana Del Rey was sued by Radiohead for the same thing relating to 'Creep''s chord structure, and there was an out of court settlement, but I dislike Lana's song a lot, so I don't care. I like the songs by The Hollies and Radiohead, but, yeah, I think I can hear it. It's not overt, but it is there.

'Ice, Ice Baby' by Vanilla Ice (1989)
The issue: Stealing the bass-line of Queen and David Bowie's 'Under Pressure' (1981)

When you take a classic bass-line from a track by Queen and David Bowie that was a hit all over the world, and your defence in court is you "added an extra note", is it any wonder you not only lost, but had to share songwriting credits and royalties plus pay an undisclosed sum of money? The most blatant steal in musical history. Not a huge fan of the Vanilla Ice song (and yet, strangely, I know all the words and used to be able to do the dance!!), but 'Under Pressure' is an absolute classic. And can I hear the similarity? Is the sun hot?

As Nasty As They Want To Be (album) by 2 Live Crew (1989)
The issue: Charged with legal obscenity (1990)

'Banned In The USA' is the song they wrote about the controversy; it's NSFW but it's safer than anything off the actual album!

A shopkeeper was arrested for stocking the album, and then the band were arrested for performing tracks from it, all in Florida. However, the USA has a thing called the First Amendment, guaranteeing Freedom of Speech, and the suit was thrown out. Eventually. But it was an important part of upholding that freedom that the USA has (and virtually no one else). For what it's worth, the album was dirty, but when it came out, it was certainly no worse than WASP or dozens of other bands. I think it more had to do with race of the artists and the genre of music than the obscenity, but that's just the way it looks to me. This album, for what it's worth, was one of the few rap albums I like.

'Surfin' USA' by The Beach Boys (1963)
The issue: Plagiarising the music of 'Sweet Little Sixteen' by Chuck Berry (1958)

Before it could get to court, The Beach Boys' manager Murray Wilson (father of three members, uncle of one) settled for a joint songwriting credit. And, years later, in more than one documentary, I have heard Brian Wilson admit that he did take the song and change the lyrics and add some surf music stylings. I love both tracks, but, yeah, you can hear it. It's not note-perfect, but it is definitely there.

'Whole Lotta Love' by Led Zeppelin (1968)
The issue: Taking sections of the song 'You Need Love' by Muddy Waters (1962) (written by Willie Dixon)

So many bands and groups of the 60s "borrowed" riffs from the old bluesmen, but Led Zeppelin seemed to be a bit more blatant about it. It took years and going to court (though settled out of court) for Willie Dixon to get royalties, some money and share songwriting credit on this track which definitely took elements from the Muddy Waters song. He also got sole songwriting credit on Led Zeppelin's 'Bring It On Home', even though Led Zep tried to describe it a homage to the Dixon-penned 'Bring It On Home'; they lost that one handily. I like both the 'Love' songs, and, yes, I can hear the similarities.

'Down Under' by Men At Work (19)
The issue: The flute solo sounded like the old song 'Kookaburra', dating back to the 1930s

I was under the impression the flute solo sounding like it did was deliberate, and so when the members of Men At Work were sued by the copyright owners, I (and many, many others) was stunned. Everyone knew it was the old kookaburra song. There was some talk that it was thought to be in the public domain. In the end, the court awarded the copyright holders 5% of royalties from 2002 onwards. But this has a depressing ending. The flautist, Greg Ham, blamed himself, there was talk of drugs, and he passed away in 2012. The other member of Men At Work, Colin Hay, also blames the stress of the court case for the death of his father. I do like 'Down Under', but it has sad undertones to me now.

'Barbie Girl' by Aqua (1997)
The issue: Talking about and making money from Barbie, a property owned by Mattel, in a song (2002)

Another one where the USA First Amendment saved the band, because it was deemed as a parody and transformative, and so Mattel's lawsuit was eventually thrown out. Mattel also accused the band of using a colour called 'Barbie pink' on the label, which Mattel claimed to own, but the court also dismissed this. Mattel took it all the way to the supreme court; they still lost. There is not much more to say, except that Mattel eventually licensed the song as an advertising jingle (with changed lyrics). The song? Guilty pleasure song; it brings back pleasant memories of an old friend and I can't hate on it.

And there we are, ten times songs were involved in the legal circus we have all around us today. There are, of course, many, many more, but these are just the ones that tickled my personal interests.

Hope you enjoyed them! Legally!


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