Top 5 Copyright Cases in the Music Industry

You’ve surely heard at least one story of major artists stealing music. Maybe it’s Led Zeppelin’s various instances, Vanilla Ice with Queen, or Joe Satriani’s prior beef with Coldplay. Regardless, news of copyright infringement makes its way to listeners’ ears every now and again. In case you were wondering, these are the top five. 

1. Vanilla Ice v. Queen & David Bowie

Arguably the most notorious case of copyright infringement, this case involves the hit “Under Pressure” co-written by Queen and David Bowie. Jump from 1981 to 1990 when Vanilla Ice released his hit “Ice Ice Baby,” and it was beyond obvious that he sampled the previous song’s baseline. 

Since neither the members of Queen nor David Bowie received credit or royalties, Vanilla Ice found himself a Federal Criminal Defense Lawyer in DC and the case began. Ice has initially tried to say he added one note to the baseline, but that fell through fast and he ultimately settled out of court. Not before Queen’s Rodger Taylor made fun of his haircut, though. 

2. John Fogerty v. John Fogerty

How can someone sue themselves, you ask? Fogerty didn’t. When Creedence Clearwater Revival split from their record label, Fantasy Inc., the label retained all rights to their music. Twelve years later, Fogerty released a single called “The Old Man Down the Road.”

Fantasy jumped at the chance to sue Fogerty, claiming the song sounded exactly like “Run Through the Jungle” because that’s what crappy record labels do. In court, Fogerty brought his own guitar to show the differences between the songs and how his signature style can sound similar from one song to the next while still creating distinct pieces. Thus, record labels cannot sue an artist over their own sound. 

3. 2 Live Crew v. Literally America 

2 Live Crew was in court about as much as they were on the radio at the time, often for offending parents, grown adults, and politicians for being “too obscene.” It seemed as though the U.S. had it out for the through the 80s and 90s. While their “As Nasty As They Wanna Be” album was the first in history to be legally declared obscene, it was a fair use case that became a larger controversy. 

On their clean version of that album, the group samples Roy Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman” in the music and lyrics. The lyrics, however, change things up for a few laughs. Ultimately, it was ruled a parody and forever changed how artists could sample songs through parodies. 

4. The Grey Album

Copyright can be a tricky side of the law. Artist Danger Mouse found out just how tricky when he created The Grey Album. It was an unofficial remix of Jay-Z’s the Black Album The Beatles’ The White Album. Danger Mouse didn’t release it for profit, he simply made it for the fun of it. 

Of course, EMI tried to sue when people caught wind of the unique mixture with the goal of halting its limited production. Ultimately, it wasn’t the courts that ruled but the people. On February 24th 2004, hundreds of websites hosted the album for free and thwarted EMI’s plans. 

5. Radiohead v Lana Del Rey

This one gained notoriety simply because it’s a strange tale. Lana Del Rey had claimed Radiohead were suing her over her 2017 song “Get Free” because it sounded like their 1992 single “Creep.” The band was not suing Rey, but their publishers did ask for writing credit. Rey never caught on to the fact that it wasn’t a lawsuit, though. 

The chord progression used in both songs are rare for pop music, according to expert analysis outside of the publisher’s request. So rare, in fact, that Radiohead had been accused of plagiarizing a 1974 The Hollies song called “The Air That I Breathe” over that same single. Radiohead, however, was actually sued and had to split royalties on top of writing credits.