Plagiarism is the “wrongful appropriation” of another author’s “language, thoughts, ideas, or expressions” and the “purloining and publication” of same under one’s own name. In academic and literary settings, plagiarism is a serious transgression. But what about the music industry?
Contrary to popular belief, plagiarism in music is a contentious subject. Even though there are many instances of legal borrowing in music (also known as sampling), the process of attribution gets quite difficult when disagreements regarding the true author of a song develop.
There are many hit songs that sound disturbingly similar to pre-existing content, whether by osmosis, coincidence, common sense, or plain outright copying. In some circumstances, this has led to settlements, while in other cases, legal action has been taken.
However, many artistes have decided to fight back in recent years out of concern that settling with accusers will result in other unfounded lawsuits.
Led Zeppelin, Katy Perry, and Ed Sheeran have all had notable triumphs in recent years, winning copyright disputes by arguing that fundamental musical elements must be available for free to all users.
The songs on this list, which include works by well-known international pop musicians as well as some lesser-known ones, all have an element in common: Some people think they plagiarized a song because it was the number one song on the Billboard Hot 100. But please note that being listed here is not indicative of misconduct, and a number of these disputes were resolved out of court; one was resolved without the need for a lawsuit to be filed, and one artiste easily defeated the accuser in court.
Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams – “Blurred Lines”
The popular song “Blurred Lines” remained at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for 12 weeks, making it the year’s longest-running single in the country. The song, which was co-written and sung by Pharrell Williams and singer/songwriter Robin Thicke, became the target of a plagiarism charge. Marvin Gaye’s children claimed that the song was a knockoff of their father’s 1977 smash song “Got to Give It Up.” Thicke and Pharrell Williams eventually reached an amicable settlement with the Gaye family without making an admission of guilt. The Gaye estate won more than $7 million at first, but only $5 million was awarded.
The Beatles – “Come Together”
John Lennon and Paul McCartney, a famous songwriting team, have frequently faced charges of plagiarism. The Beatles’ “Come Together” was the subject of the 1969 copyright infringement lawsuit against Verve Music against R.S.G. because it was similar to Chuck Berry’s 1959 smash song “You Can’t Catch Me.” While it is widely acknowledged that McCartney used the riff from You Can’t Catch Me, he did so with the permission of Berry’s publisher, who had contacted EMI to grant The Beatles a license to use the riff.
Jorge Ben Jore/Rod Stewart – “Do You Think I’m Sexy?”
According to Brazilian singer Jorge Ben Jorge, parts of Rod Stewart’s 1979 No. 1 hit song “Do You Think I’m Sexy?” were lifted from his song “Taj Mahal.” The two reached a settlement outside of court, and in his 2012 book, Stewart acknowledged “unconscious plagiarism.”
The Chiffons/George Harrison – “My Sweet Lord”
With “My Sweet Lord,” George Harrison’s first solo No. 1 single on the Billboard Hot 100 in December 1970, things were looking good for the liberated Beatle. Six years later, a court decision determined that he “subconsciously” stole The Chiffons’ song “He’s So Fine,” penned by Ronald Mack, which put a damper on his triumph. Harrison claimed that for a while after the court case, he was too “paranoid” to compose new music.
Ronald Selle/Bee Gees – “How Deep Is Your Love?”
Almost six years after the Bee Gees’ breakthrough single “How Deep Is Your Love” peaked at number one on the Hot 100 in late 1977, a songwriter by the name of Ronald Selle claimed that their song had plagiarized his 1975 demo “Let It End.” The judge granted the Bee Gees a judgment notwithstanding the decision, even though the jury had first leaned in Selle’s favor. Additionally, the Bee Gees won their case on appeal before a higher court.