Is imitation the greatest form of flattery? A look at music plagiarism and copyright infringement

Megan Brown

We’ve all had those times where we’re listening to a song, and it ends up being a different song than we imagined. With only 12 musical notes to choose from, it’s difficult in the music industry to make music without resembling influences or plagiarizing another song. Some artists take legal action, while others just let it go.

When Robin Thicke’s 2013 hit “Blurred Lines” came out, the music industry found vast similarities to a Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up.” For the past year and a half, there has been an ongoing lawsuit against Thicke and Pharrell Williams, who share songwriting credit for the song, for plagiarism of the Gaye song.

Last week, a federal jury in Los Angeles agreed that “Blurred Lines” had indeed copied elements of the Marvin Gaye song without permission. The jury found that Thicke and Williams had committed copyright infringement and would have to pay $7.3 million to Gaye’s family.

Now, this isn’t the first case we’ve seen happen before. In January of this year, similarities to the chorus of Tom Petty’s 1989 song “I Won’t Back Down” and Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” were found. The case didn’t get as serious as the “Blurred Lines” case did, but Smith agreed to give co-writing credit on the song to Petty and Jeff Lynne.

In a personal statement after the “Stay With Me” incident, Petty said “All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door, but in this case, it got by. Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament, and we easily came to an agreement.”

Here are some other cases of music infringement:

You know the song “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by the Verve? Well, anytime it’s played on the radio or TV, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards are getting royalties from it. The backing strings from “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was borrowed from an orchestral performance of the Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time.” The Verve originally asked permission to use the sampling but ended up taking more than they originally asked for, so the band ended up losing all of their royalties.

The Beatles versus Chuck Berry? It’s true. The Beatles’ 1969 song “Come Together” sounded musically similar to Chuck Berry’s 1956 song “You Can’t Catch Me.” The lyrics from “Come Together” also referred to “old flat top, groovin’ up slowly,” which was a character Berry referenced in his song. Morris Levy, the owner of Big Seven Music Corporation and the publisher of the Berry song, sued Lennon in 1973 for plagiarism. The case was settled with the agreement that Lennon was to record covers of three Big Seven Corp. songs. When Lennon refused to release the last song, he was sued again for breach of contract. Lennon then countersued after Levy released an album of Lennon’s recordings without his consent and was awarded nearly $85,000. Lesson learned: Don’t mess with a Beatle.

Take a listen to some of these songs back to back to hear their similarities. Why hasn’t any legal action taken place, or do artists just see it as admiration?


Tom Petty’s “American Girl” and The Strokes’ “Last Nite”

Madonna’s “Express Yourself” and Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way”

Tom Petty’s “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” and Red Hot Chili Peppers’ “Dani California”

Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer” and Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is A Place On Earth”

Contact Megan Brown at [email protected].