Copyright laws carry the special power of being essential to the music industry, but also a tremendous pain in the ass. Although they provide a safeguard for artists to own their intellectual property and perpetuate their careers, they more often than not get abused by wealthy fat cats trying squeeze every penny from a catalogue of music which they had no hand in actually creating.
Here we wade into the grey-zone of musical copyright and look at some examples of musical theft that are totally bonkers and others that are probably justified. Can you hear the similarities?
1. The Verve ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’
Once upon a time, there was a band called The Rolling Stones. They had a manager and producer by the name of Andrew Loog Oldham who stuck by the blues enthusiasts and set them on their way to world domination. Unfortunately, Oldham was too busy being a general pain-in-the-ass to continue working with the Stones who were moving onto bigger and better things.
After separating with the band, Oldham released an album of orchestral versions of Stones songs, which included a very tenuous (and, let’s face it, boring as bat shit) interpretation of ‘The Last Time’.
Jump forward a few decades and British alt-rockers The Verve decide to use this string sample. After securing the rights to legally use the sample, they create everyone’s favourite soundtrack for walking down a busy street.
All of a sudden the Rolling Stones’ manager Andrew Klein decides that the song relies too heavily on the sample and threatens legal action. A tonne of legal mumbo jumbo later and 100% of the royalties for ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ end up lining the pockets of the Rolling Stones’ empire. To be fair, Keith Richards might not be alive today if it wasn’t for this. I think the royalties from ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ has paid for whatever medical technology is keeping that old bag of bones, bourbon and blues alive.
2. The Flaming Lips ‘Fight Test’
Wayne Coyne, frontman of The Flaming Lips, admitted that when recording the opening track to Yoshimi Battles The Pink Robots they saw such a similarity with Cat Steven’s ‘Father & Son’ that they made an effort to change numerous parts. The final product still bears a striking resemblance to the song, which begs the question, what the hell did it sound like to begin with!? Perhaps they just started with a cover of ‘Father and Son’ and worked back from there.
Whatever the cause, the dispute was settled without having to hire more than the minimum amount of lawyers. An agreement was struck between the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens and The Flaming Lips and everyone was surprisingly chill about the whole thing. Well done music industry!
3. Led Zeppelin ‘Dazed and Confused’
No one makes any friends by bad-mouthing one of the greatest rock bands to grace this fine earth of ours, but it’s no secret that Led Zeppelin were pretty much the Winona Ryders (is it too soon for a shoplifting joke?) of music.
The story of ‘Dazed and Confused’ begins with a young singer-songwriter by the name of Jake Holmes who one day had the distinguished pleasure of opening a show for The Yardbirds, for whom Jimmy Page was currently playing guitar. After hearing Holmes’ original song ‘Dazed and Confused’, Page and co. went out and bought a copy of the album and decided to perform their own version of it.
By the time Led Zeppelin got around to making their fist studio album they claimed it as their own and went on with their lives. That is, until 2012 when Holmes sued them. Now the track is listed as ‘Inspired by Jake Holmes.’
4. John Fogerty ‘Old Man Down The Road’
In 1993 Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty was dragged before a court for sounding too much like John Fogerty. In this crazy, mixed-up world we live in is entirely possible to steal your own intellectual property.
When Creedence Clearwater Revival left Fantasy Records (not on the best terms, clearly) they relinquished some of the rights to their songs to label owner, Saul Zaentz. Many years later when Fogerty released the song ‘Old Man Down the Road’, Zaentz found an opportunity to get his hands on some more of Fogerty’s hard earned cash by declaring that the song sounded too much like the CCR classic ‘Run To The Jungle’
After Fogerty’s defense (which I’m sure went something like, “Of course they sound similar, I’m John Fogerty. I make swamp rock!”) a jury of sane people thankfully found the whole thing to be ridiculous and ruled in favour of Fogerty. He went back to his Bayou where he lived happily ever after.
5. Radiohead ‘Creep’
The main issue I have with plagiarism in music is that copying chord progressions is unavoidable. There are literally thousands of songs which share identical chord progressions yet have never been accused of plagiarism. But, when a song becomes a hit and some opportunistic party feels they can make a quick buck from it, then they probably will. I think that’s exactly what happened in this case.
‘Creep’ does have an interesting chord progression but, despite what some Radiohead fans might want you to believe, Thom Yorke didn’t exactly reinvent the wheel on this particular track. Having said that, neither did Albert Hammond (father of The Strokes’ aptly named Albert Hammond Jr) when he wrote ‘The Air That I Breathe’ in 1972. Nevertheless, Hammond sued the young lads from Oxford and won a tidy little sum to see him through his golden years.
6. George Harrison ‘My Sweet Lord’
In what was the first number one track in America and Britain by an ex Beatle, George Harrison’s ‘My Sweet Lord’ sparked a five year long plagiarism case. Ronnie Mack’s ‘He’s So Fine’ which was sung by The Chiffons, was also a number one hit in America, and only a short eight years earlier than Harrison’s acoustic classic.
It kicked off in 1971, when Mack’s recording company filed a lawsuit against Harrison. What’s interesting is that even though the judge believed the Beatle had not intentionally plagiarised, he was eventually charged with ‘subconscious plagiarism’, which seems a tad harsh, but we’re assuming the Liverpudlian could afford the payout.