It’s been said that good artists borrow while great artists steal, and hey, call it what you want but the music industry is full of artists, good, bad, ugly and everything in between who probably have that axiom mounted in neon letters above the entrance to their studios. That's sort of ironic for an industry that seems to be obsessed with protecting its precious copyrights. In fact, some of the most notable pop stars of all time (oh, and Vanilla Ice too) have been successfully sued for plagiarism, some more than once. But whatever their differences, the one thing these eight pop stars and super-groups have in common is that they were all successfully sued for plagiarism. Enjoy.
Photo Credit: YouTube/Madonna
The Song: “Surfin’ USA”
Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys is a musical genius. No one can doubt that. His arrangements and mastery of harmony helped to revolutionize the world of pop music, and many experts consider him the greatest composer of all time in the pop genre. He’s been compared by contemporaries to everyone from Mozart to Beethoven, but, well, the dude isn’t above swiping some of his best stuff from other places. It’s pretty obvious that he liberally borrowed from “When You Wish Upon a Star” when composing his famous ballad “Surfer Girl” but the song that got him and his fellow Beach Boys busted was “Surfin’ USA” in 1963, which sounded a bit too much like Chuck Berry’s 1958 song “Sweet Little Sixteen.” Man, just listen to those two back to back and, well… goddamn, Chuck’s got a point. Berry’s record company sued, and as a result, Berry is credited as a co-writer on “Surfin’ USA” and gets a cut of the royalty checks whenever anyone buys the songs, which these days probably means he just gets an e-mail saying “Congratulations, someone else just downloaded your song for free. You get zero dollars and zero cents.” Then again, as well know from Back to the Future, Chuck Berry stole “Johnny B. Good” from Marty McFly so, really, he has no room to complain.
Photo Credit: YouTube/Beach Boys
The Songs: “Whatever”, “Shakermaker”, “Step Out”
Oasis’ whole act and image is pretty much a rip-off of The Beatles so this shouldn’t really be a surprise. 1994’s “Whatever” was just a little too close to Neil Innes’ “How Sweet to be an Idiot”, and the resulting suit ended up getting Innes a co-writing credit on the song. Things went much worse for Oasis when The New Seekers successfully sued for $500,000 because “Shakermaker” shamelessly lifted its melody from the New Seekers’ “I’d Like to Teach the World to Sing”. And finally, Oasis had the nerve to steal from a blind dude. That’s right, Oasis stole “Step Out” from Stevie frickin’ Wonder, who sued the band and was granted a co-writing credit. I figure it’s only a matter of time before Oasis gets sued by the deaf guy they must have stolen half of the rest of their songs from.
Photo Credit: YouTube/MTV
The Song: “Folsom Prison Blues”
“Folsom Prison Blues” was released by Johnny Cash in 1955, but nobody really complained until he re-released the song in 1968, which is when it really caught fire after his famous concert at the prison of the same name. Apparently, that was too much for Gordon Jenkins, who sued Cash, and eventually received a $75,000 settlement because “Folsom Prison Blues” borrowed just a tad too much of Jenkins’ 1953 song “Crescent City Blues.” The two songs seem different but the more you listen to “Crescent City Blues,” the more obvious it becomes that Jenkins was right. Then again, you try writing original material when you’re high all the time. Still, Johnny Cash gave Gordon Jenkins’ song some balls so really, maybe old man Jenkins should have just shut up and said thank you.
Photo Credit: YouTube/Johnny Cash
The Song: “Frozen”
Aside from liberally stealing both her look and her personality from an ornery old leathery warlock, Madonna was also successfully sued for her 1998 song “Frozen” by a Belgian named Salvatore Acquaviva, who said that Madonna used her dark arts to swipe his song “Ma Vie Fout le Camp,” written in 1979. Look, the likelihood that Madonna was even aware of some obscure Belgian pop song from twenty years earlier seems, um, unlikely (and even more unlikely when you actually listen to the “evidence” in that second clip), but still the Belgian judge presiding over the case decided she was a plagiarist and did all of humanity (or at least Belgium) a favor and ordered that all remaining copies of the song be taken off the shelves and the song barred from Belgian radio and TV. Can someone please claim that Madonna stole the entire “Ray of Light” album from them so we can get something like that here? Sure, she’ll hunt you down and eat your soul but think of all the good you’d be doing humanity. Please?
Photo Credit: YouTube/Madonna
The Song: “Ice, Ice Baby”
Technically, Vanilla Ice was never sued for stealing “Ice, Ice Baby” from Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” but it was such obvious theft that he ended up paying them a settlement anyway. I mean… come on. Jesus. Really, if anyone deserves to be paid a settlement here it’s me because now I have “Ice, Ice Baby” stuck in my head. But honestly, how much must it suck to have the one notable thing in your entire career (other than trashing an MTV set in front of a terrified Jon Stewart anyway) not even be something of your own? I mean, stealing someone else’s song was Vanilla Ice’s life highlight. Great, now I’m depressed and overcome with second-half shame on his behalf.
Photo Credit: YouTube/Vanilla Ice
The Song: “Creep”
Yes, believe it or not, those bastions of integrity Radiohead were busted for ripping off someone else’s work. It happened on their very first hit, “Creep,” which borrowed just a tad too much from “The Air That I Breathe” by The Hollies. For a band that prides itself on its originality, that’s a bit rich, isn’t it? If you listen to the two side by side, it’s pretty obvious. But it doesn’t stop there. Oh no. Even though they weren’t sued for it and nobody ever really talks about it, go find a clip of “In the Square” by The Pretty Things (okay, fine, here’s a link) and fast-forward to about the 40 second mark. Sound familiar? If you’ve ever heard Radiohead’s “Paranoid Android” it should. The only problem? “In the Square” was released over 25 years prior to “Paranoid Android.” Such integrity.
Photo Credit: YouTube/Radiohead
The Song: “All You Need is Love”
That’s right, the Beatles, the messiahs of pop music, weren’t above lifting from other artists. On “All You Need is Love,” George Martin, the Beatles’ famous producer, borrowed heavily from several standards. He could get away with it because most of them were in the public domain, meaning that their copyright no longer belonged to anyone in particular. The only problem was that one of the songs used, “In the Mood,” while in the public domain, was actually a version arranged by Glenn Miller, which wasn’t in the public domain. The Beatles’ record company was forced to make a royalty payment and the band itself was forced to live with the ignominy of being labeled plagiarists. Okay, okay, I’ll admit that one is kind of chintzy but to make it up to you, how about this: both John Lennon and George Harrison were individually successfully sued for plagiarism, Lennon for stealing Chuck Berry’s line “Here come up flat top / He was groovin' up slowly” on 1969’s “Come Together,” and Harrison for plagiarizing The Chiffons’ 1963 hit, “He’s So Fine” on his 1970 solo hit, “My Sweet Lord.” As further punishment for their thievery, Lennon was later shot and Harrison was given cancer. Tough but fair.
Photo Credit: YouTube/The Beatles
The Song: Apparently, most of them.
No band has been sued successfully more times than Led Zeppelin, which might surprise you until you realize that the band probably owes its entire back catalogue to old delta blues singers and musicians. Also, Robert Plant probably owes the estate of J.R.R. Tolkien a fat check for all the times he yammered on about hobbits and Middle Earth and all that weird shit but we’ll let that slide. The band was actually successfully sued by Willie Dixon more than once for “borrowing” his work on both “Bring it on Home” and “Whole Lotta Love.” The funniest part is that “Bring it on Home” was stolen from a song written by Dixon for Sonny Boy Williamson titled, wait for it… “Bring it on Home.” Yes, that’s right, Page and Plant didn’t even bother to change the damn name. Now that’s some shameless thievin’ right there. They apparently learned at least a little bit of shame – but not too much – on “Whole Lotta Love,” which is taken from Dixon’s 1862 song, “You Need Love.” See? Totally different. But really, Led Zeppelin are the kings of this sort of shit and no one else could have been number one on this list. Congrats, boys!
Photo Credit: YouTube/Led Zeppelin