Return to all posts
Famous Music Copyright Issues

Famous Music Copyright Issues

Written by

James Picken


July 24, 2023



There's been a lot of famous music copyright cases over the years. How many do you recognise, and who won?

Copyright for music can be a confusing topic, but it’s so important. It protects those who work in the creative industries, and allows them to be rewarded fairly for their hard work. 

There've been many high profile cases of copyright infringement - whether it’s a song being sampled without the proper permission, or music that just sounds a bit too similar, the music industry hasn’t been short of legal battles over the years. 

What is music copyrighting?

Behind every royalty, every streaming payout, and every sync license, there’s a copyright and a copyright owner. If you’re looking to earn money from your music, it’s vital that you know how to protect that right and ensure that people aren’t stealing your work, you need to know your copyright protections. 

There are essentially two types of music copyright: master and composition. The compositional copyright covers an underlying musical composition: the arrangement of notes, melodies and chords in a specific order. It is held by songwriters, lyricists and composers, and managed by their music publishers (who also partially own the copyright).

The master copyright covers the specific sound recording that contains a particular expression of the underlying musical composition created by performing or recording artists, and is usually held by them and their label.

Now we know the types of music copyrights, let’s look at some of the most famous examples. 

Taylor Swift - Shake it Off

In 2017, Taylor Swift was accused by songwriters Sean Hall and Nathan Butler of copying the lyrics to their song Playas Gon’ Play, in her hit song Shake It Off.  

In Shake It Off, Swift sings: “The players gonna play, play, play, play, play, and the haters gonna hate, hate, hate, hate, hate.” Playas Gon’ Play included phrases like “playas, they gonna play, and haters, they gonna hate.” Swift stated that she had never heard the song before writing hers. 

The case was dismissed in 2018, with a judge saying the lyrics were “too banal” to be copied, but was appealed in 2021. But luckily for Taylor, the songwriters dropped the lawsuit at the end of 2022 and it’s unknown whether there was a settlement. 

Robin Thicke ft. Pharrell Williams and T.I - Blurred Lines

This legal dispute hung on allegations that “Blurred Lines” was evocative of the late Marvin Gaye’s 1977 single “Got to Give It Up.” 

Gaye’s estate accused Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams of copying the “feel” of the song for their 2013 hit and were initially awarded more than $7 million, but that judgement was later reduced to $5.3 million and the pair appealed the verdict.

In 2018, Gaye’s family was awarded a final judgement of nearly $5 million against Thicke and Williams. Rapper T.I., who also appeared on the song, was found not liable.

Vanilla Ice - Ice Ice Baby

Vanilla Ice was accused by David Bowie and Queen of copying their 1981 song Under Pressure in his 1989 hit Ice Ice Baby

Although Ice claimed that he had sampled it but it wasn’t the same bass line, attorneys for Bowie and Queen weren’t having it. 

The case was eventually settled for an undisclosed but hefty sum, and Bowie and Queen members received songwriting credits on the track.

In years to come, it was revealed that Vanilla Ice paid $4 million to purchase the publishing rights to Under Pressure, which he said was cheaper than continuing having to pay royalties.

Ed Sheeran - Shape Of You

One of the more recent famous copyright issues in the music industry is the case centered on whether Ed Sheeran’s hit Thinking Out Loud ripped off Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On.

The lawsuit claimed that Sheeran unlawfully employed the “harmonic progressions” and “melodic and rhythmic elements” of Gaye’s song, and that he “repeated it continuously” throughout Thinking Out Loud.

Sheeran had even stated that if he lost the case, he would quit the industry. He said: “I find it really insulting to devote my whole life to being a performer and a songwriter and have someone diminish it.”

A jury found, on May 4th 2023, that he did not copy the song. 

Led Zeppelin - Stairway To Heaven

In 2016, Led Zeppelin hit the headlines after the intro of their 1971 hit Stairway To Heaven was accused of bearing a striking resemblance to Spirit’s 1968 instrumental Taurus.

However, a judge decided that the songs - which both feature a descending chromatic four-chord progression - had no substantial similarity to each other. An appeal was made in 2018, but in March 2020, a court confirmed the original ruling: the riff wasn’t stolen. 

So, there are just some of the most high profile cases of music copyright issues from the last few decades. It shows just how important it is to respect artistic integrity in the music industry - one way we can all do this is by ensuring they're correctly paid by getting the correct licenses if you're a retail or hospitality venue playing music.

To find out more, get in touch.

Famous Music Copyright Issues

James Picken

Creative Director at Startle. It's my job to produce and execute our music output, making sure everything is sounding, feeling and performing just right for our customers. When I'm not doing this, you can find me either walking my dog, remixing 90s divas on Logic Pro X, returning overdue library books or throwing weights about in the gym.

Say hello on LinkedIn

Hey, we've just met you and this is crazy. But here's our number +44 (0)203 397 7676. So, call us maybe?

  • Number of locations *
  • Number of locations *