30 Musicians Accused of Stealing Their Hit Songs
In today’s age of music and art, it’s not as easy as you might think to produce a brand new song without being accused of plagiarizing another artist. Virtually every topic has already been covered in a song, and there are only so many note combinations, which can make it difficult to create a song that is completely different from everything else.
When artists are accused of plagiarism, it results in costly legal battles to resolve the issue. Needless to say, you don’t want this to happen. If you think it just happens to newcomers, think again. Here are 30 top musicians accused of stealing their hit songs.
Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, “Blurred Lines”
In 2016, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were under fire for copyright infringement for allegedly copying Marvin Gaye’s 1977 single "Got to Give It Up" to create their 2013 hit single "Blurred Lines." Gaye’s family demanded the singer-songwriters pay for the infringement. In an interview, Thicke admitted he had drawn inspiration from Gaye’s single while producing "Blurred Lines."
Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of the Gaye family. Thicke and Williams had to pay the family $7.4 million, and the Gaye family is now entitled to 50 percent of all royalties from "Blurred Lines" for the plagiarism. Thicke and Williams’ lawyer commented, "[The decision] sets a horrible precedent for music and creativity going forward."
Pharrell Williams, “Happy”
Pharrell Williams is regarded as a successful musician, but he isn’t a stranger to controversy and legal issues, especially when it comes to Marvin Gaye’s family. His hit single "Happy" was the most popular song in 2014, but not everyone was happy with it. The Gaye family claimed the song ripped off Gaye’s 1966 song "Ain’t That Peculiar."
It seems Williams was heavily inspired by Gaye’s music, and that might not be a good thing for him. Gaye’s daughter, Nona, commented that the songs "sound alike." While Williams has been accused of stealing from the song for his smash hit, the Gaye family hasn’t yet taken any legal action. Keep your eyes and ears open for future news.
Led Zeppelin, “Stairway to Heaven”
Legendary rock band Led Zeppelin had many successful songs in the 1970s, but none of them were as successful as the 1971 hit single "Stairway to Heaven." However, in 2016, Led Zeppelin was accused of plagiarizing the song "Taurus" by the 1960’s rock band Spirit. According to the band’s attorney, the opening of Led Zeppelin’s single steals shamefully from Spirit’s instrumental cut.
The legal case went to trial in 2016, but a jury ultimately found that the similarities between the songs did not constitute copyright infringement. The verdict was appealed in March 2017. Led Zeppelin’s song has earned more than $560 million since its release.
Katy Perry, “Roar”
When Katy Perry released her single "Roar" in 2013, fans wondered if she stole parts of the song from Sara Bareilles’ track "Brave," released earlier that year. The songs have similar messages and titles, and no one would blame fans for wondering about Perry’s originality.
Of course, there’s nothing to worry about. When news spread about the possible copyright infringement, Bareilles spoke up about the rumor. She listened to the song and insisted it was okay. She commented, "I don’t feel like anything was taken from me artistically. I’ve known Katy a long time. We are friends, and she and I spoke about it. I look at it as two female artists who are releasing a message of empowerment."
Vanilla Ice, “Ice Ice Baby”
Vanilla Ice’s 1990 single "Ice Ice Baby" is one of the most famous hip-hop and rap songs of all time — but it’s not exactly original. The rapper famously used the bass line from Queen and David Bowie’s 1986 collaboration "Under Pressure." When you hear both songs, it’s impossible not to hear the blatant similarities.
Vanilla Ice originally dismissed any discussion related to the plagiarism. However, when threatened with a legal suit, Vanilla Ice agreed to have Queen and Bowie co-credited on his hit song. Now, the two music legends receive all the songwriting credits. You might not hear "Ice Ice Baby" the same way anymore.
Sam Smith, “Stay with Me”
Sam Smith’s 2014 single "Stay with Me" was an instant classic, but unfortunately, it appears the song ripped off another classic — Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers’ 1989 tune "I Won’t Back Down." Petty’s publishers contacted Smith after hearing the similarities between the two songs. Before his passing in 2017, Petty commented, "All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen."
Smith defends his argument that he had never even heard Petty’s anthem when he was writing his 2014 single. Ultimately, both parties reached an out-of-court agreement to list both "I Won’t Back Down" writers, Petty and Jeff Lynne, as co-writers of Smith's song. Petty added, "Let me say, I have never had any hard feelings toward Sam."
The Flaming Lips, “Fight Test”
The Flaming Lips might not be the most popular band on this list, but their 2002 single "Fight Test" has been accused of copyright infringement of the popular 1970 Cat Stevens’ single "Father and Son." Legal action was taken on the matter, with the claim stating the melody sounded like a direct copy of Stevens’ original song.
Ultimately, The Flaming Lips were required to split the publishing rights for "Fight Test" with Stevens, who is now referred to as Yusuf Islam. The Flaming Lips frontman Wayne Coyne admitted that the melodies were similar, but it was never his intention to rip off Stevens’ tune.
Avril Lavigne, “Girlfriend”
In the early 2000s, Avril Lavigne was one of the most popular alternative female singers, but her 2007 song "Girlfriend" has been accused of being a direct copy of The Rubinoos’ 1979 single "I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend." Lyrically, the songs are very similar. Lavigne’s song has also been compared to Toni Basil’s 1982 famous classic "Mickey," mostly due to the semi-annoying "Hey" chants.
Lavigne had to settle the case in court, and the song now has to be properly credited to the original songwriters. Because of the news, The Rubinoos gained some new fame. Now, if only Lavigne could also return to stardom.
Ray Parker, Jr., “Ghostbusters”
Who you gonna call? Plagiarism busters! In 1995, "Ghostbusters" singer Ray Parker, Jr. was accused of stealing the hit song from Huey Lewis & The News’ 1983 single "I Want a New Drug." The paranormal theme from the 1984 fantasy film Ghostbusters was guilty of copyright infringement, and Columbia Pictures agreed to a quiet out-of-court settlement.
In 2001, Lewis accidentally spilled the beans about the legal case. This led to Parker suing Lewis for breaking their confidentiality agreement. They weren’t supposed to reveal any information about their case, but Lewis discussed the copyright infringement on VH1’s Behind the Music. It seems both artists have their own legal issues to settle.
Coldplay, “Viva La Vida”
Coldplay was involved in a complex legal case in 2008 over their hit single "Viva La Vida." Guitarist Joe Satriani claimed Coldplay copied "substantial original portions" of his 2004 instrumental song "If I Could Fly."
"I spent so long writing the song, thinking about it, loving it, nursing it and then finally recording it," Satriani recalled. "Then somebody comes along and plays the exact same song and calls it their own." Coldplay claimed they had never heard Satriani’s song. Less than a year later, the case was dismissed and reportedly settled. Under the terms of dismissal, Coldplay doesn’t have to report any wrongdoing.
Rod Stewart, “Do Ya Think I'm Sexy”
Rock and Rock Hall of Fame legend Rod Stewart was accused of copyright infringement for his 1978 hit single "Do Ya Think I’m Sexy." Brazilian musician Jorge Ben Jor was confident Stewart’s saucy song stole pieces from his 1972 track "Taj Mahal." Ben Jor thought the melody and chorus in Stewart’s song were very similar to his own song.
A lengthy lawsuit followed. Ben Jor later said the lawsuit was settled out of court, with a judge ruling in his favor. Stewart admitted to "unconscious plagiarism." Hopefully, Stewart learned his lesson and became more cautious about his songwriting inspirations.
George Harrison, “My Sweet Lord”
George Harrison was involved in one of the most notorious copyright infringement cases ever reported. His first solo single in 1976, "My Sweet Lord," was accused of plagiarizing The Chiffons’ 1963 hit "He’s So Fine." Could the lovely, sweet-natured George Harrison have actually done this?
Yes, he did — but not intentionally. The case resulted in a guilty verdict for "subconscious plagiarism." Harrison stated he truly believed he didn’t deliberately copy the music. However, because he had access to the song, he was found guilty and had to pay $1.6 million in damages. On the other hand, Harrison isn’t the only member of The Beatles to be guilty of plagiarism.
The Beatles, “Come Together”
Modern-day musical artists are constantly accused of plagiarizing songs from The Beatles. You wouldn’t expect the iconic 1960’s rock band to be accused as well, but the group’s 1969 single "Come Together" was found to have borrowed heavily from Chuck Berry’s 1956 rock song "You Can’t Catch Me." The lyrics are very similar. When you compare both songs, it’s obvious The Beatles were familiar with Berry’s original song.
Copyright owner Morris Levy settled the argument out of court, making Beatles member John Lennon agree to record three more songs — original songs, that is. Even The Beatles weren’t flawless all the time, proving that even the greats aren't perfect.
Justin Bieber, “Sorry”
Apparently, Justin Bieber had to say "sorry" for allegedly plagiarizing his 2015 hit single "Sorry." Singer Casey Dienel, who performs under the name White Hinterland, filed a lawsuit against Bieber, claiming Bieber’s song had a vocal loop that contained "unique characteristics of the female vocal riff" in her 2014 single "Ring the Bell."
Dienel claimed that Bieber and his team of writers and producers didn’t obtain the proper license to exploit her work. She remarked, "Like most artists that sample music, Bieber could have licensed my song for use in 'Sorry,' but he chose not to contact me." However, Dienel has dismissed the lawsuit since then.
Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson, “Uptown Funk”
In 2018, everyone was listening to Bruno Mars and Mark Ronson’s hit single "Uptown Funk." It was a song that made you want to stand up and dance — but it may not have been original. The Gap Band filed a copyright claim, claiming the song bears similarities to their 1979 single "Oops Upside Your Head."
It’s obvious Mars is influenced by funk songs of the 1970s and 1980s, but plagiarism is never okay. After The Gap Band filed the copyright claim, a lengthy lawsuit ensued. It was ultimately determined that The Gap Band would receive a 17 percent share of Mars’ and Ronson’s hit song.
Michael Bolton, “Love Is a Wonderful Thing”
Love might be a wonderful thing, but you know what isn’t? Getting involved in a lengthy copyright infringement case. Just ask contemporary artist Michael Bolton, who was accused of stealing his 1991 single "Love Is a Wonderful Thing" from The Isley Brothers’ 1986 song of the same title. Bolton even ripped off the song title, which is a major no-no.
Bolton ultimately had to pay a $5.4 million fine for the copyright infringement case. The singer continued to argue that his song wasn’t plagiarism, and he appealed the case all the way up to the Supreme Court. His appeal was rejected, and Bolton’s career hasn’t been the same since.
The Strokes, “Last Nite”
In 2001, The Strokes were accused of ripping off their single "Last Nite" from Tom Petty’s iconic 1976 song "American Girl." Petty had always been fairly easy going about bands borrowing material from his songs. He explained, "The truth is, I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there."
Petty also knew elements of many rock and roll songs sound alike. It’s the nature of the music genre. He remarked about The Strokes, "Okay, good for you. It doesn’t bother me." It might not have bothered Petty, but many fans were upset when they realized the connection between both rock songs. Seriously, though, as long as Petty wasn’t upset, that’s all that matters.
In 1992, Radiohead’s "Creep" was accused of borrowing too many lyrics from Albert Hammond’s 1972 single "The Air That I Breathe." Hammond’s soft rock tune was a hit in 1974, but when he heard Radiohead’s hit song in 1992, he called his lawyer. The song was too similar to his own, and legal action followed.
After a long legal battle, "The Air That I Breathe" songwriters, Hammond and Mike Hazlewood, successfully claimed a co-writing credit. They now split royalties with the band. Radiohead probably had no idea this would be the result when they first released their hit song.
Led Zeppelin, “Whole Lotta Love”
The members of Led Zeppelin found themselves in another legal battle with their 1969 hit "Whole Lotta Love." Blues musician Willie Dixon sued the band for copyright infringement of his 1963 single "You Need Love," a song recorded by Muddy Waters. The case was settled out of court, and Dixon received full writing credit for the song.
Led Zeppelin member Robert Plant admitted he stole the song. He said, "I just thought, ‘Well, what am I going to sing?’ That was it, a nick." Plant added that the case was happily paid, perhaps glad the situation had been resolved fairly quickly.
Nirvana, “Come As You Are”
Kurt Cobain admitted he wasn’t the most original musical artist. He point blank said he stole the single "Smells Like Teen Spirit" from Boston’s song "More Than a Feeling." However, Nirvana was also accused of stealing the 1991 song "Come As You Are" from Killing Joke’s 1985 single "The Eighties." Killing Joke claimed the main riff in Nirvana’s song was too similar to their rock song.
No major legal action resulted from this claim. However, in 2003, Nirvana drummer Dave Grohl played the drums for Killing Joke’s self-titled album. Hopefully, that means the two musical artists resolved their issues and were able to collaborate on music they knew was safe and original.
Elastica’s 1992 single "Connection" was accused of plagiarizing Wire’s 1977 song "Three Girl Rhumba." Both rock bands previously admired each other’s work, but when Wire noticed the blatant similarities between their song and Elastica’s hit single, a legal case followed.
In addition, many of Elastica’s songs sound as though they were heavily inspired by Wire tracks. That’s not necessarily a problem, but it gets complicated when it comes to legal matters. How much can you be inspired without crossing the line? When does it become plagiarism? Ultimately, the case was settled out of court. The bands seem to be on good terms now, which is all that matters.
Ed Sheeran, “Photograph”
It might come as a shock to some fans that Ed Sheeran’s 2014 single "Photograph" wasn’t entirely original. It’s a beautiful love song, but songwriters Martin Harrington and Thomas Leonard accused Sheeran of plagiarizing the song "Amazing," recorded by English singer Matt Cardle. This wasn’t good news for Sheeran.
Ultimately, Sheeran handled the case with care, pleading guilty to "verbatim, note-for-note copying." He agreed to pay $20 million in copyright damages, and the case was privately settled. Although the song was stolen, "Photograph" is still a beautiful love ballad worth playing. Hopefully, Sheeran learned his lesson.
Green Day, “Warning”
Many music fans consider Green Day to be the last good punk band in existence. They have produced many hit songs, including "Wake Me Up When September Ends" and "Boulevard of Broken Dreams." However, it was their 2000 song "Warning" that caused trouble for the band. The song has been linked to The Kinks’ 1968 song "Picture Book."
Although Green Day has been accused of stealing the song, legal action hasn’t been taken. The song’s main guitar riff bears a strong resemblance to The Kinks’ original song, but so far, the resemblance seems to be okay with the 1960’s English rock band. Maybe they were just happy someone was still inspired by their music after 30 years.
Miley Cyrus, “We Can't Stop”
Miley Cyrus is no stranger to having her name slapped on the cover of tabloids. She’s probably used to notoriety by now. In 2013, the former Disney Channel star was involved in a $300 million copyright infringement lawsuit over her single "We Can’t Stop." Jamaican songwriter Michael May, who performs under the stage name Flourgon, claimed Cyrus’s song stole nearly 50 percent of his original song "We Run Things."
May demanded that all future sales of the song stop and that Cyrus no longer perform the hit single at her concerts. Cyrus agreed to pay the $300 million fine, but you still hear "We Can’t Stop" every now and then on the radio, and the video is widely available. It seems, to May’s disappointment, that the song won’t stop any time soon.
Carrie Underwood, “Game On”
Carrie Underwood is regarded as one of the sweetest, most humble artists in the music industry. So, it may come as a shock that her 2018 song "Game On," which features during Sunday Night Football, was accused of infringing on a song by singer Heidi Merrill. The song features a similar refrain and melody as a song Merrill had allegedly previously pitched to Underwood’s team.
If the allegation is true, Underwood can’t just "cry pretty" over the problem. Along with the NFL and NBC, Underwood will have to address the plagiarism accusation, but no one has yet to comment on the case. Regardless, it isn’t a good way to kick off the 2019 NFL football season.
One Direction, “Midnight Memories”
One Direction and Def Leppard sound like two completely different musical groups. When the British pop group One Direction released their single "Midnight Memories" in 2013, some music fans thought the song sounded too similar to Def Leppard's 1987 rock classic "Pour Some Sugar on Me." The songs were "too similar" in structure.
However, the case was deemed implausible. The songs may have sounded similar, but it wasn’t a case of full-on theft. One Direction continued to make music. Unfortunately, this wasn’t the only time the pop group was accused of plagiarism. One Direction may have stolen from another popular song from the 1980s.
One Direction, “Live While We're Young”
Maybe One Direction should focus on living like they wrote original songs. The group’s 2012 song "Live While We’re Young" has been accused of stealing from The Clash’s 1982 smash success "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" When you listen to both songs, it’s obvious One Direction was perhaps recording a parody of The Clash’s original song.
No formal accusations have been made against One Direction, even though member Harry Styles admitted the similarities between the songs were "kind of on purpose." As other artists believe, it’s okay to be inspired by other songs, as long as you credit the original musician.
Bon Jovi, “You Give Love a Bad Name”
Bon Jovi’s 1986 rock anthem "You Give Love a Bad Name" was one of the best songs of the decade. However, it turns out it wasn’t an original song. The single was a reworking of Bonnie Tyler’s 1986 song "If You Were a Woman (And I Was a Man)." Tyler’s song didn’t perform well on the charts, but songwriter Desmond Child knew it would work with another voice — Jon Bon Jovi.
Child teamed up with Bon Jovi and Richie Sambora, and the three re-imagined Tyler’s song, turning it into a No. 1 hit. Everyone was happy with the success, especially Child. This is one case where the songwriter happily allowed another group to "copy" a song.
The Beach Boys, “Surfin' USA”
How can it be possible that one of the best bands of all time was involved in a copyright case? This 1960's group had many successful hits over multiple decades, including "Good Vibrations," "Wouldn’t It Be Nice" and "Kokomo," but the 1963 single "Surfin’ USA" remains a favorite for many fans. Unfortunately, it wasn’t entirely a Beach Boys’ original.
Band member Brian Wilson was listed as the sole writer of the hit song, but the song was later accused of plagiarizing Chuck Berry’s 1958 song "Sweet Little Sixteen." To resolve the issue, Berry was given writing credit and publishing royalties. In 2015, Wilson admitted, "I just took 'Sweet Little Sixteen' and rewrote it into something of our own."