Katy Perry has just lost a court case which ruled that her song ‘Dark Horse’ “improperly copied” Flame’s 2008 song ‘Joyful Noise’. Supposedly it’s about the beat which… look, you be the judge as to whether anyone got ripped off.
But she shouldn’t be ashamed. The history of musical lawsuits going in unexpected directions has a rich history and has involved some pretty high profile numbers.
‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Got To Give It Up’
Blurred Lines was already controversial for sounding awfully like a smirking endorsement of date rape, but that wasn’t what got it dragged before a judge.
No: in an impressively The Castle move, it was the subject of a case over the vibe of the thing. Specifically, that it ripped off the mood of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got To Give It Up’.
And the songs sound a bit similar, but up until this point a song had to lift a recognisable melody or chord progression to be considered plagiarism. This time around it was the rhythm, elements of the arrangement and the “feel” of the track, which hadn’t previously been thought to be copyrightable.
This set a dangerous precedent for artists ever making something which was inspired by something else. Over 200 artists co-signed a brief used in the 2018 appeal, which still failed to overturn the ruling.
The case was also notable for supposed co-writer Robin Thicke insisting that the song was entirely written by Pharrell Williams. Solidarity, Rob!
‘Down Under’ and ‘Kookaburra’
In another weird case the publishers of ‘Kookaburra’ (as in “…sits in the old gum tree-ee”) successfully argued that Men At Work ripped off the melody via Greg Ham’s flute riff.
What’s even weirder is that no-one had noticed until it was a question on Spicks and Specks in 2007. Ouch.
The 2010 case and appeal was cripplingly expensive for both sides and reportedly broke Ham’s heart, and he passed away in 2012.
The lesson here: music trivia has wide reaching consequences.
Bonus: Don’t lift things from the Rolling Stones
Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, like many artists, do not own the rights to much of their early material
The Verve – or, more accurately, singer/wongwriter Richard Ashcroft – never made any bones about the fact that ‘Bitter Sweet Symphony’ was based around a sample from a Rolling Stones song, specifically an orchestral version of ‘The Last Time’ which was used with permission from Decca Records, but not by Alan Klein who owned the publishing, and who demanded 100 per cent of the song.
However, in May 2019 it was announced that the situation had been sorted and the rights had reverted to the band.
If that seems a bit petty, a similar situation happened in the early 90s to the rather less well known Carter The Unstoppable Sex Machine for their song ‘After The Watershed’, which contained three Stones-related words in the chorus (“Goodbye Ruby Tuesday”). Three. Freakin’. Words.
There was an injunction which killed the song’s radio play, and then Jagger and Richards were added to the credits as co-writers.
Which means that the men who wrote the horrifically sexist ‘Under My Thumb’ are also credited with writing one of the most brutally grim anti-child abuse songs of all time. Yay?