Apr 29, 2016

Notable Music Copyright Infringement Cases

If you are interested in music copyright law, here's a website you should check: Music Copyright Infringement Resource, sponsored by Columbia Law School and the USC Gould School of Law. It details over 160 cases from 1844 to the present, including often-amusing introductory comments on each case, and the texts of the decisions.

There's far more reading here than I have time for, and the legalese is often dense, but I can recommend a look at these cases, at least:

Saint James Infirmary (1932 - issues of title ownership)

My Sweet Lord (1976 - George Harrison was found to have "subconsciously" infringed on the Chiffons' "He's So Fine," plaintiffs were awarded damages)

When Sunny Gets Blue (1986 - parody "When Sunny Sniffs Glue" was held to be "fair use")

Satin Doll (1993, Estate of Duke Ellington vs. Estate of Billy Strayhorn - the judgment states that chord progressions may be an element of copyright!)

Girl From Ipanema (2001 - Astrud Gilberto vs. Frito-Lay)

Feel Like I'm Fixin' to Die Rag (2003, Babette Ory vs. Country Joe McDonald - case was dismissed on the grounds of time elapsed since the alleged offense)

Copyright infringement issues that did not result in litigation, or were settled out of court, did not make it onto this data base, e.g. Chuck Berry/Beach Boys ("Sweet Little Sixteen"/"Surfin' USA"), and Jorge Ben Jor/Rod Stewart ("Taj Mahal"/"Do Ya Think I'm Sexy"). Berry settled for a co-writing credit, and Stewart agreed to donate proceeds to UNICEF.

There's another recent music plagiarism case in the news, alleging that Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" was cribbed from Spirit's "Taurus." I listened to the songs in question, and IMHO, the suit is utterly without merit. But what do I know? I thought the recent "Blurred Lines" case brought against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams by the heirs of Marvin Gaye was also utterly without merit, but the jury awarded Gaye's family $4 million.

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