It’s an unthinkable question for many classic rock fans: Did Led Zeppelin “steal” the opening chord progression of Stairway to Heaven? A judge recently ruled it bears a “substantial” similarity with Spirit’s 1967 song, Taurus. A trustee for the estate of Spirit songwriter Randy Wolfe filed a copyright infringement suit in 2014, and a jury will now decide the issue. While Led Zeppelin has previously settled several other copyright suits, they’re certainly not the only artists who’ve been accused of using other musicians’ work without credit. This is not necessarily intentional; music, like literature, film and other creative endeavors, builds on previous work. In some cases, artists said they subconsciously copied the other song, or there was confusion about whether it resided in the public domain. Whatever the case, here are five popular songs that resulted in settlements because an artist crossed the line into plagiarism.
5. Da Ya Think I’m Sexy (Rod Stewart, 1978)
The British rocker made this hit song as a spoof of the disco craze of the late 1970s. But Brazilian artist Jorge Ben Jor sued Stewart for infringement over similarities in the chorus and melody with his 1972 song, Taj Mahal. Stewart and Jor reached an “amicable” out-of-court settlement. Years later in an autobiography, Stewart admitted he had unconsciously plagiarized the song.
Here’s the original work by Jorge Ben Jor:
4. Stay With Me (Sam Smith, 2014)
British vocalist Sam Smith’s Stay With Me topped the charts in the U.S. and elsewhere around the world in 2014. A few months later, Smith agreed to pay royalties and share songwriting credits with Tom Petty and co-writer Jeff Lynne because of similarities with Petty’s 1989 classic I Won’t Back Down. Smith’s representatives maintained he had not heard Petty’s song, but acknowledged the obvious similarities. And Petty, like many other songwriters whose work has been plagiarized, had a surprisingly understanding attitude. “All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen,” he said. “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’s the original work by Tom Petty:
3. Ghostbusters (Ray Parker Jr., 1984)
Ray Parker Jr.’s catchy Ghostbusters is synonymous with the iconic 1984 movie of the same name, but there’s a very strange tale surrounding the tune. The film’s producers originally wanted Huey Lewis to write the theme song, but he declined. Lewis later filed a lawsuit when he noticed that Parker’s Ghostbusters sounded similar to Lewis’ 1983 hit I Want a New Drug. Columbia Pictures reached an out-of-court settlement with Lewis. But in an unusual twist, Parker sued Lewis years later after Lewis allegedly broke a confidentiality agreement and talked about the settlement in an MTV Behind the Music feature.
Here’s the original work by Huey Lewis:
2. Whole Lotta Love (Led Zeppelin, 1969)
The song that helped launch the whole Led Zeppelin craze in the early 1970s lifted elements from a 1962 Willie Dixon song, You Need Love. As Muddy Waters sings in this cover of Dixon’s song, “Way down inside, woman you need love,” you can almost hear Robert Plant belting out those lyrics. Led Zeppelin reached an out-of-court settlement with Dixon in the 1980s, and he is mentioned as a co-writer on subsequent releases of the song. As noted earlier, Led Zeppelin reached settlements with several other artists regarding copyright infringement for other songs, including Bring it on Home, The Lemon Song and Boogie With Stu. In subsequent interviews through the years, Robert Plant and Jimmy Page admitted they included elements from earlier works in those songs, but did so as a form of tribute.
Whole Lotta Love:
Here’s the original work by Willie Dixon, as covered by Muddy Waters:
1. My Sweet Lord (George Harrison, 1970)
Former Beatle George Harrison’s biggest hit as a solo artist, My Sweet Lord hit No. 1 in the U.S. and other countries in 1970. The copyright holders for The Chiffon’s No. 1 hit from 1963, He’s So Fine, sued a few months later for infringement. In arguably the most famous copyright infringement case in music history, a judge ruled that he believed Harrison had plagiarized the song, but had done so because of a condition known as cryptomnesia. In essence, he subconsciously borrowed from the Chiffon’s song. Harrison settled the case by buying the music company that held the copyright for that earlier song.
Here’s the original work by The Chiffons:
One More: Folsom Prison Blues (Johnny Cash, 1955)
Johnny Cash said his inspiration for Folsom Prison Blues came after he watched a film about the notorious California prison in the 1950s. But he also liberally borrowed many of the same lyrics and melody from the song Crescent City Blues, recorded in 1953 by composer Gordon Jenkins. After Cash performed at Folsom State Prison in 1968 and the resulting live version of the song hit No. 1 on the country charts, Jenkins sued. Cash eventually paid Jenkins a settlement of around $75,000. Ironically, Jenkins had based the melody of his recording on a 1930s song by the same name.
Here’s the original work by Gordon Jenkins: