Bittersweet Symphonies: 5 Notable Times Rockstars Sued Each Other Over Plagiarism

The Beatles And Their Producer (1964). Photo by: Michael Ochs Archives / Stringer, Getty Images.

All musicians are inspired by other artists, and the music we listen to creates a well of sounds that we draw upon when making our own music. Sometimes, though, the lines between inspiration, imitation, homage and outright thievery are blurred, and the mess left behind sometimes requires a cleanup in a court of law.

Cryptomnesia is described as a forgotten memory returning without the subject recognizing it as such, which offers the excuse that musical plagiarism often may be unintentional. We hear so many riffs and melodies, but don’t always recall where they came from. While this may be the culprit in some cases, there’s never a way to know whether a particular song getting ripped off is a dastardly deed or an honest mistake.

Even legendary bands like Led Zeppelin aren’t immune from scrutiny on the matter. With the “Stairway to Heaven” lawsuit heading toward a jury trial, let’s check out some noteworthy examples of musical plagiarism.

Chuck Berry vs. John Lennon

Chuck Berry’s publisher, Big Seven Music Corp., was none too pleased with The Beatles’ song “Come Together,” which contains the line: “Here comes ol’ flat top/He come groovin’ up slowly.”

The line is derivative of one from Berry’s song “You Can’t Catch Me,” which goes, “Here come up flat top/He was movin’ up with me.”

After the company filed suit, a settlement was reached wherein Lennon agreed to record three Big Seven songs on his next album. When he failed to do so on Walls and Bridges, Lennon was again sued for breach of contract and Big Seven was awarded $6,795, according to the Beatles Bible.

Chuck Berry - "You Can't Catch Me"

The Beatles - "Come Together"

Albert Hammond vs. Radiohead

Few people, if any, could perceive at the time of Pablo Honey the musical monolith that Radiohead would morph into in the years to come. But it was “Creep,” the breakout single from that album, that pushed them into rock superstardom during the early ‘90s. People across the globe loved the catchy, self-loathing anthem; it became a theme song for disillusioned kids everywhere. However, there were at least two individuals who weren’t particularly fond of it.

Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood claimed it used the same chord progression of their song “The Air That I Breathe,” performed by their band The Hollies. They sued Radiohead and won, and Hammond and Hazlewood now are credited as co-writers of “Creep,” according to Time Magazine.

The Hollies - "The Air That I Breathe"

Radiohead - "Creep"

The Rolling Stones vs. The Verve

“Bittersweet Symphony” permeated the airwaves when it came out in 1997, and it gave The Verve a taste of previously unknown widespread commercial success. The song includes a four-bar excerpt of an orchestral version of The Rolling Stones’ “The Last Time,” which the band obtained permission to use.

Allen Klein, former Stones manager, felt the band had taken more than necessary and leaned too much on the original material. His holding company, ABKCO Records, filed suit and the case was eventually settled out of court.

“They (Rolling Stones) just had the biggest hit they've had since `Brown Sugar' probably,” said Richard Ashcroft, The Verve’s lead singer in an interview with the Toronto Star music critic Betsy Powell. The Verve gave all of their royalties to Klein and songwriting credits were changed to Jagger/Richards/Ashcroft. A bittersweet symphony, indeed.

The Rolling Stones - "The Last Time"

The Verve - "Bittersweet Symphony"

Joe Satriani vs. Coldplay

It is unlikely that anyone would mention Coldplay and Satriani in the same breath. However, when Satch heard Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida” he filed a copyright infringement suit, claiming the song contained “substantial, original portions” of his instrumental track “If I Could Fly.”

Coldplay denied the allegations, saying it was pure coincidence. It’s difficult to imagine a band like Coldplay seeking inspiration from Satriani, but an undisclosed settlement was eventually reached out of court and Coldplay did not have to admit to any wrongdoing, according to MTV News.

Joe Satriani - "If I Could Fly"

Coldplay - "Viva La Vida"

John Fogerty vs. John Fogerty

Yes, you read that correctly — it’s not a typo. In 1994, John Fogerty was sued for self-plagiarism by Fantasy Records, owner of the Creedence Clearwater Revival catalog.

Fantasy claimed that Fogerty’s song “The Old Man Down The Road” was a direct copy of the CCR song “Run Through the Jungle.” The jury ruled in Fogerty’s favor, but he was upset when he was denied attorney fees. The court found that the suit was not frivolous, and the case was eventually reviewed by the Supreme Court, which upheld the decision not to reimburse Fogerty for legal costs, according to Mental Floss Magazine.

Creedence Clearwater Revival - "Run Through The Jungle"

John Fogerty - "The Old Man Down The Road"

When people join a band, they imagine playing to thousands of screaming fans and creating a rich musical legacy to share with the world. It is unlikely that they imagine settling lawsuits and watching their royalties vanish into thin air, but it is a reality that some have had to face.

The next time you think you’ve come up with a hit single, just be sure to do a little research. If you don’t, the Mercedes you bought for your grandmother is in danger of being repossessed, and your reputation tarnished. On the bright side, it doesn’t mean the end of a career in music, but it’s a road that should be avoided whenever possible.

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