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Law and Order: 6 of the Most Famous Musical Court Cases and Who Won Them

Most music fans don’t associate their favorite bands with the judicial system, except maybe for Justice, but famous lawsuits and court cases over the past hundred years continue to have a massive impact on the way we both listen to and create music. There’s a sort of lawlessness that’s often associated with music and the people who make it, and we can credit this to our collective penchant for freedom and self expression, but, like it or not, the intersection between music and business is prime territory for legal dramas to play out — especially when there’s copyright infringement involved.

Today we’re highlighting some of music’s most famous legal battles (not including the famous tale of the Japanese “lawsuit-era” guitars, which you can read about here).

Marvin Gaye Estate v. Robin Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I. (2015)

Probably the most famous and impactful music court case in modern history, the music industry and music fans across the world were stunned in 2015 when they learned that a court in Los Angeles had ordered Robin Thicke and Pharrell to pay Marvin Gaye’s estate $7.3 million in damages. Gaye’s estate sued the artists because parts of their song “Blurred Lines” were identical to Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit “Gotta Give It Up.”

To convince the jury that parts of Gaye’s song were stolen and replicated by Thicke and Pharrell, they had musicologists testify about the similarities between songs. In addition to inspiring thousands of cheesy metaphors about the blurring of lines in the press, the case held the record for highest payout for a music copyright infringement until the payment was reduced to $5.3 million according to Rolling Stone.

While this was good news for Thicke and Pharrell, it was bad for T.I., another writer credited for working on the song. “Although the rapper skirted any legal trouble during the initial ‘Blurred Lines’ trial,” reported Rolling Stone, “T.I. is credited as a co-songwriter and received royalties, but the jury found the rapper did not commit copyright infringement — the judge ruled that T.I. must be included in the judgment against Thicke and Williams.”

Vanilla Ice v. Queen and David Bowie (1990)

Vanilla Ice might seem like a joke now, but he was a major music player in 1990. So when Queen and David Bowie brought a suit against him claiming that his mega-hit “Ice Ice Baby” copped the iconic bass line from their song “Under Pressure,” the world took notice. You don’t have to be a musician to hear the blatant similarity between songs, and Ice’s legal team must’ve thought so, too, because they opted to settle out of court for what we can only assume was a ton of money. Though he later played it off as a joke, Vanilla Ice’s absurd defense of his plagiarism makes this one of the funniest and most memorable music court cases of all time.

Ice assumed that slightly altering the bass line would keep him from having to credit Bowie and Queen for the song, but he was wrong. His error would’ve most likely gone unnoticed if it wasn’t for the success of the song, which topped the charts in the US in 1990.

Go deeper into what makes “Under Pressure” so harmoniously infectious with Soundfly’s free course, Theory for Producers: The White Keys and Major Modes.

Metallica v. Napster (2000)

The landmark case of Metallica v. Napster back in 2000 proved that the music industry was completely unprepared for the digital revolution. The band brought a suit after it learned that their entire catalog was available for free on Napster, the world’s first P2P (peer-to-peer) music file-sharing service. Metallica sought $10 million in damages and produced a list of 335,435 people believed to have illegally downloaded their music.

Soon after, record labels and other artists like Dr. Dre filed suits of their own. Metallica never got the $10 million they hoped for, but their suit did lead to the termination of 230,142 Napster accounts and, eventually, the company itself.

It’s hard to imagine a time when you couldn’t stream music from your phone or computer, but this case marked music’s tumultuous transition into the digital age. In 2000, artists and labels weren’t ready for a world with technology that allowed fans to stream and download their music, and nearly two decades later, the music industry has yet to recover.

Selle v. Gibb (1984)

Our next famous music court battle is an oldie but a goodie. This landmark case established the legal precedent that striking similarities between ideas are not enough to prove plagiarism. This means that in a court of law, a legal prosecution would have to prove that an idea, like a song, was intentionally copied and couldn’t have been the result of independent creation, coincidence, or common source. Ronald H. Selle, a songwriter from Chicago, claimed that the 1978 Bee Gees song “How Deep Is Your Love” copied a melody from a song he wrote in 1975, three years before.

Check out this notational comparison between the two (geez, thanks, YouTube!):

Establishing early in the proceedings that their case was based on striking similarities, Selle’s attorney tried to show that the main melody of both songs was identical. The defense — songwriting brothers, Maurice, Robin, and Barry Gibb — successfully argued that the similarities between melodies were purely coincidental and a result of things like taste and writing style, not blatant plagiarism.

The court, who ultimately sided with the Bee Gees, decided that while the melodies were similar, Selle’s claim lacked merit because he couldn’t prove the defendants had ever heard or intentionally copied his melody.

Kesha v. Dr. Luke (2014)

Involving multiple lawsuits and countersuits, the tragic case involving Kesha and Dr. Luke, a former producer the pop star accused of rape and emotional abuse, is nowhere near its end. Fans started the “#FreeKesha” movement in 2014 when a judge refused to let Kesha out of a contract she’d made with Dr. Luke years earlier. In response, Taylor Swift donated $250,000 to help cover her legal bills, and Lady Gaga inferred that Dr. Luke had also abused her when she was 19.

Kesha, who released an album called Rainbow last year, now makes music without Dr. Luke but is still required to pay royalties to him while she’s under this contract. Dr. Luke has filed suits of his own against not only Kesha but also her family members. Though Dr. Luke has won in court (so far), his reputation has been irreparably damaged by Kesha’s allegations.

Coldplay v. Joe Satriani (2008)

Joe Satriani was just one of three artists to accuse Coldplay of stealing ideas for their song “Viva La Vida.” Satriani filed a copyright infringement suit in 2008 claiming that “Viva La Vida” incorporated significant passages of instrumental sections from his song “If I Could Fly.” The case was thrown out, but it’s not known whether Coldplay was forced to pay up or not.

Yusuf Islam, better known as Cat Stevens, also claimed to have been ripped off by Coldplay but wasn’t interested in taking his claim to court. “They did copy my song, but I don’t think they did it on purpose,” he said in an interview. “I don’t want them to think I am angry with them. I’d love to sit down and have a cup of tea with them and let them know it’s OK.”

Want to learn more about how royalties work and how to get the money you deserve? Check out our free course, How to Get All the Royalties You Never Knew Existedand read up on the differences between getting paid as an “Artist” versus a “Songwriter” here.

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Patrick McGuire
Patrick McGuire

Patrick McGuire is a writer, musician and human man. He lives nowhere in particular, creates music under the name Straight White Teeth, and has a great affinity for dogs and putting his hands in his pockets.