They say there’s a story behind every song. Sometimes those stories involve lots and lots of lawyers. Songwriting and music publishing has always been where the real money’s at in the music business, especially these days as physical record sales continue to fall. Whether we’re talking about stolen melodies, un-credited lyrical contributions or samples used without permission, the following songs landed their performers in court and in most cases paying the price for their alleged artistic appropriations. These are the most litigated songs in music history.
The Songs: Led Zeppelin “Whole Lotta Love” / “Bring It On Home” (1969)
The Plaintiff: Willie Dixon
The Case: Overlords of ‘70s hard rock, Led Zeppelin opened and closed their landmark second album II with two barnstorming numbers that soared into the stratospheric upper reaches of amplified proto-metal. However, both songs owed pretty sizable debts to two Chicago blues classics written by Willie Dixon, staff writer, producer and bassist at the legendary Chess Records. While the classic rock radio staple “Whole Lotta Love” merely lifts lyrics from Muddy Waters “You Need Loving,” “Bring It On Home” uses parts of the Sonny Boy Williamson original as it’s intro and ending.
The Judgment: Never ones to deny their artistic debt to their blues heroes, Led Zeppelin put their money where their mouths were and settled with Dixon out of court in 1987 after he brought a plagiarism suit against them. Both songs now credit Dixon as one of the composers however the band continues to take criticism for its alleged borrowing of many a musical motif. They must cry all the to the bank.
The Song: George Harrison “My Sweet Lord” (1970)
The Plaintiff: Bright Tunes Music, publisher of “He’s So Fine” by The Chiffons.
The Case: Former Beatles guitarist George Harrison had a global hit on his hands in 1970 with this simple homage to spirituality in general and Hinduism in particular. The only problem being the main verse bore a striking resemblance to the oldies standard “He’s So Fine” by girl-group The Chiffons and written by Ronald Mack. Mack’s publisher, Bright Tunes Music, filed suit in 1971 though the trial didn’t start until 1976 and complications resulted in it not being completely resolved until 1998.
The Judgment: Though the initial ruling was in the plaintiff’s favor with the judgment that Harrison should pay $1,599,987, this was later reduced to $587,000. However, the cases’ expensive long drawn out trial and substantial judgment had the result that later copyright infringement cases were usually settled quickly and preferably out of court.
The Song: Ray Parker, Jr. “Ghostbusters” (1984)
The Plaintiff: Huey Lewis and the News
The Case: Motown-reared guitarist Ray Parker, Jr. may not have been afraid on no ghosts but the short-deadline the producers of the hit movie Ghostbusters gave him to write the movie’s theme song may have scared him into stealing the melody from another one of the ‘80s biggest hits. Parker claims he had been inspired by a TV jingle he saw for a local business though the finished song bore a spooky resemblance to “I Want A New Drug,” a top 10 hit for Huey Lewis and The News earlier that year.
The Judgment: Huey Lewis and The News sued not only Parker but also Columbia Pictures who had released the movie. The matter was settled out of court however when Lewis opened up about the case on an episode of Behind The Music Ray Parker, Jr. sued Lewis for breach of confidentiality.
The Song: John Fogerty “The Old Man Down the Road” (1985)
The Plaintiff: Fantasy Records
The Case: The distinctive singing and songwriter voice for ‘60s stalwarts Creedence Clearwater Revival, John Fogerty’s split from the band and their label, Fantasy Records, was so acrimonious he refused to sing any their iconic songs for nearly 20 years. When he reemerged into the public eye with the hit album Centerfield, its leadoff single “The Old Man Down the Road” raised the ire of Fantasy Records boss Saul Zaentz who felt it was a re-write of the Creedence song “Run Through The Jungle” which the label owned the publishing rights to and filed a copyright infringement suit.
The Judgment: After taking the witness stand with guitar in hand to show how the two songs were separate compositions the jury ruled in John Fogerty’s favor. Fogerty then countersued Zaentz to cover his attorney’s fees which he won in a precedent setting judgment by the U.S. Supreme Court after two lower courts had ruled against him.
The Song: De La Soul “Transmitting Live from Mars” (1989)
The Plaintiff: Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman of The Turtles
The Case: Long Island hip hop group De La Soul’s groundbreaking debut album 3 Feet High and Rising was rightfully lauded at the time of its release for its creative use of sampling, raising the practice to new levels of artistic sophistication. Unfortunately among the many samples that made up the album’s dense sonic gumbo was an unlicensed intro from The Turtles 1969 recording of “You Showed Me.” Former-Turtles Howard Kaylan and Mark Volman slapped the De Las with a $1.7 million lawsuit.
The Judgment: Though settled out of court, the suit was a precedent setting case for the music industry. Henceforth, record labels and lawyers would pay more attention to who was sampling whom and carefully crediting and paying the original artists lest they end up having to settle up in or out of the legal arena.
The Plaintiff: Acuff-Rose Music, Inc.
The Case: As a result of the backlash against their album As Nasty As They Wanna Be for its alleged obscene content, Miami rappers The 2 Live Crew issued a cleaned up version titled As Clean As They Wanna Be which contained a parody of the Roy Orbison chestnut “Oh, Pretty Woman.” The group had originally asked the song’s publisher Acuff-Rose for a license but when they refused 2 Live Crew went ahead and put the song on the record anyway. Acuff-Rose subsequently sued 2 Live Crew and Luke Skyywalker Records for copyright infringement.
The Judgment: The initial ruling was in 2 Live Crew’s favor, asserting that since song was a parody it qualified as fair use. Acuff-Rose appealed the decision and it went all the way to the Supreme Court where it set legal precedent for fair use cases involving parodies though the original suit was ultimately remanded and settled out of court.
The Song: Madonna “Justify My Love” (1990)
The Plaintiff: Ingrid Chavez
The Case: Known as one of Madge’s most controversial songs (and its ensuing video), “Justify My Love” actually started out as a demo by the then up and coming Lenny Kravitz and poet and former Prince protégé Ingrid Chavez. When the single was released though, Madonna and Kravitz were credited as the songwriters and Chavez’s name was nowhere to be found. She quickly filed suit.
The Judgment: Though the case was settled out of court rumor has it that Ingrid Chavez was handsomely compensated. Her name was added to the song’s writer credits “with additional lyrics by Madonna.”
The Song: Vanilla Ice “Ice Ice Baby” (1990)
The Plaintiff: Queen and David Bowie
The Case: Whether you consider him a fun, guilty pleasure or the antithesis of all that is good about hip hop, there’s no denying Robert Van Winkle’s signature tune was a major hit when it was released. There was also no denying that he sampled the signature bassline from “Under Pressure,” a 1981 hit by rockers Queen and David Bowie without paying the requisite licensing fee or crediting them. Well, actually he did deny it, claiming no royalties were due since he altered it slightly.
The Judgment: Despite his initial protestations, Ice quickly settled with the classic rockers out of court, giving all due credit and back royalties. It was also this song that infamous rap impresario Suge Knight supposedly shook Vanilla Ice down for on behalf of one of the producers though in fact all disputes were settled in court.
The Song: Biz Markie “Alone Again” (1990)
The Plaintiff: Gilbert O’Sullivan
The Case: Beloved Brooklyn MC Biz Markie’s star was on the wane after his third album I Need a Haircut failed to produce a hit on the level of his previous records break-out single “Just A Friend.” Things got worse when forgotten ‘70s soft rocker Gilbert O’Sullivan sued him for the album track “Alone Again”’s unauthorized sample of O’Sullivan’s 1971 #1 hit “Alone Again (Naturally).”
The Judgment: In a landmark decision the courts ruled in the plaintiffs favor, establishing forever after that all samples must be preapproved by the original copyright owners before being released. As for Biz Markie his label Cold Cold Chillin’ Records had to pull the album from shelves but he bounced back with his next record, the cheekily titled All Samples Cleared!.
The Song: MC Hammer “U Can’t Touch This” (1990)
The Plaintiff: Rick James
The Case: Fleet footed if lyrically-challenged rapper MC Hammer spoke of a beat “you can’t touch” in this era-defining pop rap song but he didn’t give proper songwriting credits or royalties to funkster Rick James whose 1981 hit “Super Freak” supplied the untouchable beat in question. James dropped the legal hammer and filed suit for infringement of copyright.
The Judgment: Without a dancing leg to stand on MC Hammer quickly settled with Rick James out of court and added him as one of the songs co-writers which meant a substantial amount of the millions of dollars the song made went straight to him.
The Song: C+C Music Factory “Gonna Make You Sweat (Everybody Dance Now)” (1990)
The Plaintiff: Singer Martha Wash
The Case: Big and beautiful R&B belter Martha Wash had sang on hit records going back to the days of disco before laying down the signature hook to C+C Music Factory’s international #1 record. When it was released though her name was nowhere to be found in the credits and adding further insult svelt siren Zelma Davis lip-synched her vocals in the song’s music video. Martha Wash felt it was time to take a stand and took the band to court.
The Judgment: The courts weighed in on Wash’s side and ruled that she should receive proper credit and royalties. Coming in the wake of the Milli Vanilli scandal, her case also inspired further music industry legislation to insure that vocalists always received credit on album packaging and music videos.
The Song: Negativland “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” (1991)
The Plaintiff: Island Records
The Case: Experimental oddballs Negativland poked fun at U2 on this 1991 recording which combined an irreverent run through of the Irish rockers song “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” on kazoo with an obscene rant by old time radio DJ Casey Kasem sampled on top. U2’s record label Island was not amused and sued Negativland and their label SST Records, claiming the song and its packaging, which featured U2’s logo, violated trademark law.
The Judgment: Despite claiming the song was a parody and thus entitled to fair usage, Negativland quickly capitulated to Island’s requests and SST pulled the record from production. The band used the incident as the basis for their 1995 book and CD, Fair Use: The Story of the Letter U and the Numeral 2 which resulted in another lawsuit when SST sued Negativland for publishing the label’s confidential financial information and correspondences.
The Song: The Verve “Bitter Sweet Symphony” (1997)
The Plaintiff: ABKCO Records, publisher of “The Last Time,” written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards.
The Case: Brit-pop mainstays The Verve broke into the big leagues on the success of this single which took its main hook from a sample of Andrew Loog Oldham’s 1966 orchestral arrangement of The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.” As the song climbed the charts ABKCO Records, which owns the rights to all of The Stones 1960s recordings, filed suit saying the sample used exceeded the agreed upon usage.
The Judgment: The band settled out of court giving up not only all past and future royalties but also 100% of the songwriting credits which are now attributed to Jagger / Richards despite the fact that Verve vocalist Richard Ashcroft wrote the lyrics. To make matters even more bitter, Andrew Loog Oldham, who owned the original sound recording, sued the band soon after and the group split up by the end of the decade.
[Photos: Getty Images]