These musicians made hits that sound a little too familiar.
For most songwriters, it’s impossible not to take influence from previous decades. Few musicians grew up in a vacuum or found themselves raised without at least a few classic albums. But whether subconsciously or through devious methods, these big names have found themselves accused of stealing songs from the past. And in these cases, they’ve had to give up royalties in order to settle disputes. The lesson here being: avoid every familiar chord sequence or melody at all costs, or face the consequences.
Sheeran’s multi-million selling blitz on the charts hasn’t gone without its fair share of hiccups. He found himself subject to a royalties dispute in March 2017, via low-key tropical house banger ‘Shape of You’. Kandi Burress and Tameka ‘Tiny’ Cottle from songwriting team Xscape were subsequently added to the song’s credits, when they raised a dispute citing similarities to TLC’s 1999 ‘No Scrubs’ hit. Burress and Cottle are now listed as songwriters, alongisde Steve Mac and Johnny McDaid, plus producer Kevin Briggs.
2014 smash-hit ‘Uptown Funk’ has been the subject of copyright infringement accusations. Ronson’s most successful track always had an air of familiarity about it, and funk-peddlers from the past used that to put forward their case. Most notable is a settled agreement with The Gap Band, which acknowledged similarities to their 1979 ’Oops! Inside Your Head’ track. Additional credits gave members and producers of The Gap Band a 17% share of publishing royalties, reducing those of Ronson, Mars, Christopher Gallaspy, Phillip Lawrence, and Trinidad James.
The Gallagher brothers were sued by Neil Innes, of the Rutles and the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band, for borrowing portions of his ‘How Sweet to Be an Idiot’ song on their own ‘Whatever’ track. According to Innes, they nabbed a melodic line to the extent that he was owed a co-writer credit. In 1999, former drummer Tony McCarroll was given a one-off sum of £550,000 in unpaid royalties, following a High Court case. McCarroll, who left the group following the release of ‘Definitely Maybe’, lodged an original claim for an estimated £18 million.
Never shy of controversy, 2013 chart-topper ‘Blurred Lines’ was subject to one of the most high-profile, watershed cases in royalty disputes. The Marvin Gaye estate filed a lawsuit against Williams, rapper TI and Thicke (who later claimed he was too drunk to write the song), because the song ripped off 1977’s ‘Got to Give it Up’. Speaking to GQ, Thicke passed the blame to Williams by describing the songwriting process: “I was like, ‘Damn, we should make something like that, something with that groove.’ Then he started playing a little something and we literally wrote the song in about a half hour and recorded it.” A jury awarded $7.4m to Gaye’s children after a ruling in March 2015.
Smith was forced to share royalties with Tom Petty and collaborator Jeff Lynne, when the songwriters noted similarities between ‘Stay With Me’ and their own ‘I Won’t Back Down’ track. The claim was settled out of court, and representatives for Sam Smith told Billboard: “Not previously familiar with the 1989 Petty/Lynne song, the writers of ‘Stay With Me’ listened to ‘I Won’t Back Down’ and acknowledged the similarity. Although the likeness was a complete coincidence, all involved came to an immediate and amicable agreement in which Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne are now credited as co-writers of ‘Stay With Me’ along with Sam Smith, James Napier and William Phillips.”
Seminal track ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ borrows a five-note sample from the orchestral version of the Rolling Stones’ ‘The Last Time’, which Richard Ashcroft and co. believed to have cleared. However, former Stones manager Allen Klein claimed the Verve used a bigger proportion than agreed, and it resulted in 100% of the song’s royalties being handed over. After this, another old Stones manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, sued the group for infringing on songwriting copyright. The Verve lost everything to do with the song – brutal.
‘Waking Up’, from the Britpop group’s 1995 self-titled album, found itself embroiled in a court case with Complete Music, publishers for The Stranglers. They claimed Elastica’s song plagiarised ‘No More Heroes’, resulting in an out-of-court settlement that handed Complete Music 40% of ‘Waking Up’’s royalties. The Stranglers’ own JJ Burnel later told The Independent: “It’s the first thing our publishers have done for us in 20 years, but if it had been up to me, I wouldn’t have bothered.”