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5 recent high profile battles over copyright of popular songs
Home Business Legal
By: Don Milne Email Article
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Your favourite song on the radio could be embroiled in a copyright battle with mil-lions of dollars at stake, and you’d never know it. With plaintiffs seeking everything from huge payouts to ongoing royalties, copyright battles create fascinating feuds within the music world. From Ed Sheeran to Drake, here are the most recent high profile battles over some of the world’s favourite hits.

1. Drake ft. Jay-Z ("Pound Cake") vs. Jimmy Smith ("Jimmy Smith Rap")

Fair use is a challenging defence, and usually leaves defendants paying huge sums to go to trial, yet Drake recently won a fair use case. A few years ago, Jimmy Smith accused Drake of copyright infringement, saying Drake used a clip of his without his knowledge, even though the clip was edited.

In Jimmy Smith’s 1982 song "Jimmy Smith Rap," Smith said: "Jazz is the only real music that’s gonna last. All that other bullshit is here today and gone tomorrow. But jazz was, is and always will be."

Without clearing the clip with Smith, Drake used the above 35 second clip as a sample in his 2013 song "Pound Cake," however he took out the reference to jazz and spliced it with the word ‘is.’ Drake sang instead: "only real music [is] gonna last, all that other bullshit is here today and gone tomorrow."

The clip is at the start of the song, listen here.

Prosecution charge: Infringement of copyright

Defence case: Copyright’s fair use doctrine

Verdict: Drake won as the clip was deemed transformative. Judge William H. Pauley said Drake’s purpose in using the clip was sharply different from the original artist’s goals in creating it; making it transformative and therefore, fair use.

2. Sam Smith ("Stay With Me") vs. Tom Petty ("I Won’t Back Down")

Media couldn’t get enough of the 2015 verdict handed to Sam Smith after litigation targeting his huge hit Stay With Me. Petty, Jeff Lyne and their publishers argued the first two phrases of the chorus for each song are far too similar. When transposed so both songs are in the same key, the similarities are fairly clear to hear; from simi-lar syncopations to notes and rhythms.

To hear a comparison of the two songs, listen here.

Prosecution charge: Copyright infringement

Defence case: The case never went to trial as Smith and his publishers settled with Petty & Co. as they acknowledged the songs’ likeness was a complete coincidence. Smith’s rep told Rolling Stone : "[They were] not previously familiar with the 1989 Petty/Lynne song, the writers of 'Stay With Me' listened to 'I Won’t Back Down' and acknowledged the similarity."

Verdict: Publishers of Smith’s hit agreed to a 25% share of royalties with Petty, Lyne and publishers, as well as giving the pair credit on Smith’s song. There was no animosity in this case though, with Petty saying "these things happen…Sam did the right thing and I have thought no more about this. A musical accident, no more no less."

3. Mark Ronson ("Uptown Funk feat. Bruno Mars") vs. The Gap Band ("Oops Upside Your Head"), the Sequence ("Funk You Up"), Zapp (More Bounce to the Ounce) and Collage ("Young Girls")

Continuing until today, this extensive battle involving numerous parties has been evolving since 2015. The Gap Band has alleged copyright infringement outright. Sequence claimed Ronson & Co. borrowed "significant and substantially similar compositional elements" from Funk You Up’s hook. Collage said Ronson stole "the main instrumental attributes and themes" of their 1983 song, "Young Girl." Zapp said their 1980 proto-synth groove in "More Bounce to the Ounce" is a vital element of Ronson and Mars’ song.

Listen to a comparison with Oops Upside Your Head here.

Listen to a comparison with Funk You Up here.

Prosecution charge: Each band has created their own charge, ranging from copy-right infringement seeking damages to an injunction against profiting from in-fringement, and a jury trial.

Defence case: Ronson says the song is inspired by classic blues progressions, and other sources. The DJ told a TED Talk audience: "If you…copy without making it a carbon copy, it’s original."

Verdict: Gap Band members resolved issues out of court, and were awarded 3.4% royalties of the song. The other cases are ongoing. Considering the song’s popular-ity, the case may be one of the greatest hit takedowns in the modern era.

4. Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams ("Blurred Lines") vs. Marvin Gaye ("Got to Give It Up")

Largely covered in the media, this lawsuit has set a worrying precedent, allowing the ‘vibe’ of a song to be the subject of copyright which had never been allowed be-fore. In 2014, the late family of Marvin Gaye alleged the walking base within "Blurred Lines’, the background chatter and cowbell were all too similar to Gaye’s hit song from 1977. When you listen to the songs in succession, the similarities are very apparent.

Listen to a comparison of the two songs here.

Prosecution charge: Copyright Infringement

Defence case: The songs are completely unique despite the similar elements in the background.

Verdict: Gaye’s family were awarded $5.3 million from Thicke and Williams, plus 50% of the song’s future royalties making it one of the largest music copyright pay-outs ever.

Pharrell Williams was concerned about the verdict though, and the precedent it has created."The verdict handicaps any creator out there who is making something that might be inspired by something else," said Pharrell.

5. Ed Sheeran, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill ("The Rest of Our Life") vs. Sean Carey and Beau Golden ("When I Found You")

Two Aussies are alleging songwriter Ed Sheeran along with country singers Hill and McGraw are guilty of "blatantly copying" their 2014 song performed by Jasmine Rae. The artists claim Sheeran was touring Australia extensively when "When I Found You" was enjoying plenty of radio airtime, and it was a subconscious but serious copyright error.

Listen to both songs layered upon each other here.

Prosecution charge: Copyright Infringement. The songs are "substantially similar in bars 1-8 of both songs."

Defence case: One song features two singers and is a country and Western song, while the other is a ballad.

Verdict: The case only begun in 2018, and continues today.

The next time you hear a new song which sounds remarkably like an old favourite, it could be embroiled in a legal battle over copyright with millions at stake.

Rose Lawyers and Conveyancers -

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