A History of Plagiarism in Songs

On March 10, 2015, a Los Angeles jury ruled that Robin Thicke's hit "Blurred Lines" copied elements of Marvin Gaye's 1977 song "Got to Give It Up" and awarded Gaye's estate $7.3 million in damages.

These cases rarely go all the way to a jury, but when they do, those eight people have to rely on intuition and musicologist testimony to decide if a song infringed copyright. In many cases, the artist makes his case in court - Thicke's testimony included a piano medley where he played other songs that sound like "Blurred Lines."

The line between theft and homage is indeed blurred, but there is a long history of plagiarism in music.
~Michael Borshuk
In a 1980 Musician magazine interview, Steely Dan co-founders Donald Fagen and Walter Becker got themselves into a bit of hot water with a sarcastic answer to a question about the title track to their new LP, Gaucho. Confronted with the overwhelming musical similarities between their song and a half-decade old tune called "Long As You Know You're Living Yours" by jazz pianist Keith Jarrett, the ironic songwriters quipped, dismissively: "We're the robber-barons of rock and roll." Fans of Steely Dan might have been charmed by Fagen and Becker's usual flair for the wisecrack, but Jarrett wasn't amused. He sued the songwriters for creative theft, and successfully earned himself a writing credit for "Gaucho."

Interestingly, this wasn't even the first time Steely Dan had self-consciously alluded to a jazz recording on one of their tracks. Listen to the opening riff of their 1974 hit, "Rikki Don't Lose That Number" back-to-back with the intro to Horace Silver's 1965 number, "Song for My Father," and you'd be hard-pressed to tell the difference between the two. But Silver didn't sue the Dan — perhaps recognizing the jazz ethos to which they claim in interview after interview. While a borrowing in rock and roll may be cause for litigation, jazz musicians frequently reference other works of music in moments of improvisation. Quoting is all part of the jazz musician's bag, and if, say, the estate of Jerome Kern sued every time a saxophone player snuck in a melodic snippet from "All the Things You Are," there'd be an endless series of copyright infringement suits showing up on dockets.

Ironically, by the end of the 1980s and the turn to the 1990s, Steely Dan's catalogue of funky jazz-inflected pop music was emerging as fertile ground for hip-hop's sample-heavy aesthetics. The Fagen-Becker hit "Peg" featured prominently, for instance, in the early De La Soul cut, "Eye Know" from 1989's Three Feet High and Rising; 3rd Bass borrowed significantly from the Dan's "FM (No Static At All)" on their 1991 tune, "No Static at All." A myriad of Dan-samples have turned up in hip-hop in the years since. Fagen himself made light of this in the 1999 Classic Albums series documentary on the making of Aja, rapping from Lord Tariq and Peter Gunz's "Déjà Vu," for its memorable sampling of the Dan's "Black Cow." Fagen could joke, perhaps, because after 1992's landmark legal case, Grand Upright Music vs. Warner Bros. Records, in which songwriter Gilbert O'Sullivan successfully sued rapper Biz Markie for sampling the tune, "Alone Again," samplers have had to be more dutiful in giving samplees due credit. Hip-hop's early manic cut-and-mix aesthetics haven't been the same since. It was particularly interesting for artists with songs on the charts at the time of the ruling, since they were suddenly on the hook for the samples in their hit songs. With the power to name his price, Prince collected $100,000 from Arrested Development for the word "Tennessee," which was lifted from his song "Alphabet Street." Their frontman Speech told us: "As the song moved up the chart the album got to #3 on the pop charts. And once it went down, the very week it went to #4, we got a call from Prince's representation. They waited for that song to sell as many possible copies as they could wait for."

It's surprising, perhaps, that it took till the early 1990s for sampling to find its way into the courtroom, since the history of American popular music is such a litigious one. While jazz musicians may be permissive in allowing for allusion and quotation, pop songwriters have been assertive in trying to build fences around their creative property. One of the earliest examples is a case surrounding the 1956 novelty record, "The Flying Saucer," by Bill Buchanan and Dickie Goodman. Framed as a parody radio broadcast a la Orson Welles' famous War of the Worlds, Buchanan and Goodman "broke-in" (as they called it) to the narrative with musical snippets from various earlier hit records, ranging from The Platters' "The Great Pretender" to Elvis Presley's "Heartbreak Hotel" to Chuck Berry's "Maybellene." While the odd single was a hit, moving up to #3 on the Billboard charts, it also earned the duo time in court when various music publishers came after them for "breaking in" without permission. While Chuck Berry was one of the borrowed artists to whom Buchanan and Goodman turned, the legendary guitarist also ended up as co-writer on The Beach Boys' "Surfin' U.S.A." not because he chummed around with the Brothers Wilson, but because a court found the track much too similar to Berry's earlier hit, "Sweet Little Sixteen." (Incidentally, both Berry and the Beach Boys appeared on the legendary 1964 music documentary, The T.A.M.I. Show, but sadly not together, thereby missing the chance to do a mash-up of Berry's number and its plagiarized half-sibling.)

British songwriters of the 1960s have been particularly visible in plagiarism litigation — unsurprising, maybe, for a generation of boys who never made any secret of black American musicians' influence on their sounds. That gushing admiration hasn't stopped black songwriters and artists from successfully getting their financial due and credit over the years for notable borrowings by Brit rockers. The most famous of these is likely George Harrison's ponying up royalties after a court decided "My Sweet Lord" was a little too much like The Chiffons' "He's So Fine." But Harrison's Beatles-compadre John Lennon also saw litigation — from none other than Chuck Berry! — for taking the opening lyrics to "Come Together" from another tune without permission. In the 1970s, Led Zeppelin saw a flurry of legal activity over their penchant for taking significantly from the earlier American blues artists that inspired them as lads. Chess Records, it turns out, didn't like seeing Zeppelin profit so easily from quotations and borrowings from artists in the Chess stable, like Willie Dixon and Sonny Boy Williamson.

The oddest case of litigation in pop music history, though, might be John Fogerty's being sued, effectively, for plagiarizing himself. That is, when Fogerty left Fantasy Records for Warner Brothers Records, he relinquished control over his earlier Creedence Clearwater Revival material to Fantasy, in exchange for contractual release. This came back to haunt him later, when Saul Zaentz of Fantasy sued Fogerty, claiming that the artist's 1985 solo number, "The Old Man Down The Road," was a self-plagiarism of the earlier CCR cut, "Run Through The Jungle." Bringing his guitar to the witness stand when the issue went to court, Fogerty was able to suggest the tunes were separate entities, and convinced a judge to dismiss the suit, thus precluding what might have been one of the most ironic creative-property decisions in pop music history.

Michael Borshuk is Associate Professor of African American Literature at Texas Tech University. He is the author of Swinging the Vernacular: Jazz and African American Modernist Literature, and for ten years, from 1999 to 2009, wrote on jazz for Coda magazine.
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Comments: 44

  • Cudennis from MichiganGot one to add to the list. Cold Blood did a tune called "Valdez in the Country" from 1972 (BTW, written by Donny Hathaway). Later on in 1976, Deodato released an album called Very Together and on that album is a song called "Juanita". I love Deodato, but Juanita is the exact same song. He did his own arrangement and just renamed it.
  • Charles from BrazilWhat about Procol Harum's 1967 "A whiter shade of pale" vs. Eyes of Blue's 1968 "Largo"?
  • Nick from Surrey, British ColumbiaHas anyone ever compared Dee Clark's Hey Little Girl with George Michael's Faith?
    The Guitar is virtually Identical
  • Craig from AlamedaGeorge Harrison was ironically initially inspired to write "My Sweet Lord" after hearing Edwin Hawkins' gospel crossover hit "O Happy Day."
  • Cookey from Uksly and the family stone sex machine & rocky mountain way!!!!!!! lol
  • Crickett from HarrisburgI think there is a plagiarism case in the recent pop song by DMCE "Cake by the Ocean" The song was TALK TO ME BY Chico DeBarg.
  • Hocking Hick from OhioAm-G-F
  • Doug from MiddlesbroughHere is one never mentioned before : KC and the Sunshine Band - "Give It Up" and Paul Simon's "Call Me All"
  • Jay Francis from Houston, Texas I was always amused by the fact that Huey Lewis sued for Ghostbusters being a plagiarism of I Want a New Drug", when their song "This Is It" is such an obvious plagiarism of "Fooled Around and Fe"ll In Love".
  • Dd from San Diego"There are 12 notes in standard european music, this means that, on a guitar, 2,985,984 possible chords/note combinations...there are 61,917,364,224 possible chords/note combinations on piano."

    That is true, in theory. However, only about 5% of these combinations will sound pleasing to the listener's ear.

    Sure, I could play piano with my fists and come up with unique chord progressions and voicings but I don't think I'd have many listeners.
  • K.c. from NhWhen Vanilla Ice openly ripped off the bass riff from Bowie/Queen's "Under Pressure", he claimed that it wasn't the same...because it had an added note to it. Anyone with ears could tell that it was the self-same riff - not even replayed but using the actual recording - with that one added note kinda "scratched" in!
  • Tim from CaliforniaWhen I first heard "True" by Ryan Cabrera, my mind went straight to the Extreme classic "More Than Words." Maybe it was just a coincidence, but the two songs sound very similar.
  • David from LondonHas anyone noticed the similarities between "Saving all my love for you" by Whitney Houston and "Don't it make my brown eyes blue" by Crystal Gayle. When I first heard the Whitney song, I honestly thought it was a cover of the Crystal Gayle song. Same chords and a very similar melody. The choruses in particular are virtually identical
  • Daniel from MaineChord progressions are not "copywritable" material; only lyrics and melody. Also, see the theme from "Taxi" and "Red Clay" by Freddie Hubbard.
  • Helen from ChicagoDo you have any evidence or documentation for such a dramatic story?-- the chuck berry/john lennon/morris/levy and 45 million daollar suti??
  • Joe D. from New Yorki think ghost busters went to court because it was similar to a huey lewis somg.
  • Rusty from Metropolis, IlRed Hot Chilli Peppers song "Dani California" had parts that are almost completely similar to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers song "Mary Jane's Last Dance". Not saying RHCP is a terrible band but Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers are my favorite band and either way the songs are way to similar.
  • Rodney Bleckstyne from Vancouver CanadaBarry Manilow's "Brooklyn Blues" and Steely Dan's "Pretzel Logic" are at times melodically identical!
  • Tom M from New YorkHe left out the classic line Fogerty (apparently or allegedly) delivered on the witness stand (guitar in hand) when asked about the similarity: "yeah...so it's the same half step...what do you want to do, inoculate me for it?"! I agree/concur with other musicians who post here...sometimes the songwriting process is transparent and sometimes it's not (you realize the source later). You can listen to and assimilate music all the time and not have things come out that have their source elsewhere, it's all part of the greater whole. While I agree with the math on the combinations available there are certain intervals that appear over and over again in music, not just the I-IV and I-IV-V or the IIm-V7-I (in Jazz) but the VIm-V and VIm-V-IV are everywhere and tons of 50 songs (Doo Wop and more) were on the I-VIm-IV-V progression. It's still what you do with it, the arrangement, the lyrics and so on...and can be the same thing in essence yet totally different at the same time.
  • David from London, United KingdomJoe Satriani cost Coldplay quite a lot to settle out of court over ripping him off for Viva La Vida
  • Amit Verma from New Delhi, IndiaHi, I'm from India... and in my country everything is being copied from West... hundreds of movies that are released every year are copied from numerous Hollywood and other countries' films... even the music has been copied from late 70's to till now from different genres... I hate copying... eveytime i finish watching an bollywood movie i remember it been copied from some Engilsh flick... and this is really bad... in my country no law is there for copyright act or anything... this is shame for us... and unfortunately i'm the part of this country...
  • -anonymous from Muscle Shoals, Alabama UsaThis is to Rob I: Anyone who doesn't hear the so-called "similarities" of "Need You Now" and "Eye in the Sky," is tone-deaf anyway and shouldn't be composing music. If you think you can recognize duplicate lyrics then maybe you should stick to writing those instead....just sayin'
  • David from Ft. Madison, IaThere may be almost infinite combinations of notes and tones, but there are whole families of combinations close enough to draw the attention of copyright lawyers. Every time I hear a new folk song with a simple melody, I have to wonder how many other songs have basically the same melody. And songs are not written in a vacuum, but are the product of influences. In traditional classical music, borrowing was done frequently.
  • Alan from Louisville, KyEric Carmen had to relinquish royalties from "All By Myself" and "Never Gonna Fall in Love Again" to the heirs of Sergei Rachmaninoff, after he found out to his chagrin that Rachmaninoff's works weren't (and still aren't) in the public domain.
  • Ekristheh from Halath, Us Minor Outlying IslandsChuck Berry didn't actually sue Lennon for his takeoff on "You Can't Catch Me" in "Come Together". It was Morris Levy, the Mob-connected music publisher and founder of Roulette Records, who owned the rights to Berry's music. Levy was a cutthroat con artist notorious for scamming musicians out of their rights and suing anyone and everyone. He used to add his name to the credits of songs written by artists in his stable. Lennon included songs owned by Levy on his "Rock & Roll" album in return for Levy dropping the lawsuit. When Phil Spector managed to screw up the "Rock & Roll" sessions Lennon showed Levy tapes of the album in progress to explain that work had stalled out on the project but would resume. Levy stold the tapes, made his own album (Roots) and then sued Lennon, Capitol & EMI for 45 million dollars!
  • Patrick from Spring Lake Heights, Nj...not to mention Huey Lewis and the News "borrowing" the opening stanzas to ELO's "Sweet Talking Woman" - with similar opening lyrics...
  • Brady from Niagara Falls, NyLove Paul and the Beatles, but "Yesterday" lyrics sound a lot like Billie Nolidays.
  • Erin from Toronto, OnAdele's song Hometown Glory (2008) is stolen from Sia's Breathe Me (2004)
  • AnonymousLest we forget "Ghostbusters" from Ray Parker, Jr. sounding similar to "I Wanna New Drug" by Huey Lewis & the news ;-)
  • Rob I from Vancouver, BcIf it wasn't for "Need You Now" I wouldn't have written one of my better songs. I don't see it as being similar to "Eye in the Sky" which is a favorite of mine.
  • Jim from N. Billerica, Ma UsaGood Lord, If it weren't for Willie Dixon, Led Zeppelin wouldn't have been able to product the first two albums! Even their signature song is just a rework of Willie Dixon's "You need love".

    And the Sex Pistols intro to "Holidays in the sun" sounds an awful lot like the intro to the Jam's "In the City"
  • Rob I from Vancouver, BcIf it wasn't for "Need You Now" I wouldn't have written one of my better songs. I don't see it as being similar to "Eye in the Sky" which is a favorite of mine.
  • Zombie JcI hate when people say "There are only so many notes you can use, so obviously someone will rewrite a melody" because that's utter lies. There are 12 notes in standard european music, this means that, on a guitar, 2,985,984 possible chords/note combinations on a six string guitar. This also means that there are 61,917,364,224 possible chords/note combinations on piano. Note, these numbers disregard octaves and the many additional chord voicings that can totally change the mood of a chord. Also, there is practically an INFINITE number of rhythmic sequences you can use for these notes. This is also only in western music. If you look towards Middle-Eastern music, quarter tones enter the equation, that DOUBLES the number of notes and chords available to someone. Do I personally care if musicians draw influence from others and as a result create similar sounding music? No, as a musician myself I often do it without realizing it, but it's not because there are a limited number of notes. It's because we like recreating the things we enjoy which is a better reason than "a limited number of notes."
  • Esskayess from Dallas, TxI suppose many of them were like Miley's dad, when confronted with the obvious plagiarism in his dumb "Achy Breaky" song: "Here's a quarter; call someone who cares."
  • Dan from Winthrop, MaFogerty answered back with Zantz Can't Dance.A song on early pressings of Centerfield
  • Andyp133At the end of the day there are only so many notes that a songwriter can "put together in a sequence" so creating a melody. Nearly every song I listen to or hum to myself i find myself transposing into another siong that it reminds me ofwhz9
  • Carmelo from Genova,italyWell, I've always wondered why no-one has ever noticed and realized that the melody lines from Give Peace A Chance (Plastic Ono Band), Don't Let Me Down (Beatles) and The Killing Of Georgie Pt.1&2 (Rod Stewart) are virtually the SAME thing!!!
  • Paul from Tacoma, WaRyan R - listen to the chorus in Marty Balin's "Hearts". Sure sounds similar to both of those and recorded a lot earlier.
  • Ed C from El Paso, TxWhat about Alan Parsons going after Lady Antebellum's "Need You Now" saying it's too similar to his "Eye in the Sky."
  • Peter from New ZealandI am a sucker for trivia and loved this article. The Verve came badly unstuck with Bitter Sweet Symphony. The Rolling Stones (the Last Time)were on to them double quick and scored a writing credit.
  • Young Kwak from Seoul.koreaI am really impressed. I learned a lot from this site.
    I am an English progessor and broadcasting personality. I love all the comments.
  • Brad from Barry, TxWasn't Steve Winwood sued for self-plagiarism? I think it may have been for "Don't You Know What the Night Can Do" having similar melodies to "Back In the High Life."
  • Ryan R from PhiladelphiaIf you listen to the one riff in "If I Could Fly" by Joe Satriani, and then "Viva La Vida" by Coldplay, it is almost obvious that Coldplay took the riff and used it.
  • Tony D from Vero Beach, FlSteely Dan's instances of "boy, that sounds like..." go back to their FIRST album: the chorus of "Midnight Cruiser" always struck me as sounding quite a bit like The Hollies' "Dear Eloise".
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