You Stole My Song!

Songwriters steal. It happens all the time.

Bob Dylan's "Blowin' In The Wind" lifted its tune from a traditional folk song called "No More Auction Block." Lennon and McCartney's "Here, There And Everywhere," was cut from similar cloth as the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows." David Bowie based "Fame" on a doo-wop tune called "Footstompin'."

Of course, most artistic endeavors have a touch of the magpie spirit. But because of its limitations--twelve notes, simple rhythms, and lyrics that deal primarily with matters of the heart--pop songwriting has more shared DNA than any other art form.

But what happens when creative borrowing crosses the line into outright theft? In the 18th century, composers often accused each other of swiping motifs. But then, most of them were freely looting melodies from peasant folk songs. It wasn't until copyright laws were firmly in place in the early 19th century that musical plagiarism landed in court. The first recorded case in the US was in 1831, over a song called "The Old Arm Chair." The plaintiff won $100 in damages.

A hundred years later, copyright infringement cases were popping up every week in Tin Pan Alley. Indeed, a disgruntled tunesmith from that era, Ira Arnstein, holds the record for suing songwriters. Arnstein was so paranoid that he once marched outside out of ASCAP, wearing a sandwich board that read, "My songs have been plagiarized by: Irving Berlin, George Gershwin, Cole Porter . . ."

That sandwich board reveals a crucial aspect of these cases. If you're going to sue a songwriter, aim high. Better to go after Sting than Robert Pollard. The thought is that a superstar would rather settle out of court than have his reputation tainted. Plus, the money will be better.

To win a case, you must prove two things. One, that the songs in question have what the law calls "striking similarity." And two, that the defendant had previous access to your song. Not so easy. Of the scores of cases that have made it to trial, only a handful of have been decided in favour of the plaintiff.

Here are six biggies, with links that allow you to play judge and jury:

Defendant: "Dazed And Confused"

Plaintiff: "Dazed And Confused"

From "Stairway To Heaven" to "Babe I'm Gonna Leave You," Led Zeppelin's back catalogue is full of borrowed riffs. The debt to American folkie Jake Holmes' 1967 song "Dazed And Confused" has long been acknowledged, so why is he filing suit now?


Defendant: "Down Under"

Plaintiff: "Kookaburra Sits In The Old Gum Tree"

It's only a flute riff that was borrowed in Men At Work's 1983 chart-topper, but it'll cost the Aussie band dearly: 5 per cent of all royalties generated by the song since 2002, plus 5 per cent of future royalties. Flute player Greg Ham said, "We'll face massive legal costs. At the end of the day, I'll end up selling my house."


Defendant: "My Sweet Lord"

Plaintiff: "He's So Fine"

George Harrison said his song was inspired by "Oh Happy Day" by the Edwin Hawkins Singers. Ronnie Mack, who wrote "He's So Fine" for the Chiffons, believed otherwise. After George paid out a $1 million, the headaches of litigation inspired his 1976 single "This Song."


Defendant: "Ghostbusters"

Plaintiff: "I Want A New Drug"

Huey Lewis was asked to record a theme song for Ghostbusters, but passed. When Ray Parker, Jr. got the assignment, he pinched a groove and bit of melody from Lewis's then-current hit "I Want A New Drug." Lewis sued. Parker lost. In 2001, in an interview for VH-1's Behind The Music, Lewis mentioned the suit, breaking a confidentiality agreement. Parker countersued. The case is still pending.


Defendant: "Bittersweet Symphony"

Plaintiff: "The Last Time"

In 1997, notorious manager Allen Klein sued The Verve over their hit "Bittersweet Symphony," which sampled instrumentation from The Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra's arrangement of The Rolling Stones' "The Last Time," a recording Klein controlled. He won, then licensed the Verve's master to Nike for millions.


Defendant: "Viva La Vida"

Plaintiff: "If I Could Fly"

Chris Martin must wish he never wrote this one. American band Creaky Boards made plagiarism accusations, as did Yusuf Islam, the former Cat Stevens. But only guitarist Joe Satriani filed suit. Coldplay denied knowledge of Satriani's song, and the case was dismissed in 2009, with both parties potentially agreeing to an out-of-court settlement.


So over to you, song sleuths. Any curious similarities you'd care to draw attention to? is the digital limb of MOJO, the world's favourite music magazine.

View Comments