Music infringement cases that helped advance copyright law

| Nov 10, 2017 | Copyright Law

When you look back at the history of music, it is easy to see patterns in which artists borrowed heavily from other creative musical minds. At one time, not much happened to prevent or dissuade this practice, but about 50 years ago, artists began to take a more serious stance against plagiarism.

As these artists sought to protect their original works in the legal realm, copyright law began to change, resulting in better protection and remedies for artists. This post will explore a few landmark infringement cases that helped to advance copyright law in America.

1972, Willie Dixon vs. Led Zeppelin: By this time in music history, it was common for artists to “honor” their idols by borrowing bits of music. However, Dixon did not appreciate this honor and took Zeppelin to court for plagiarism. The resulting infringement case raised awareness about copyright law while showing other artists that it was possible to find satisfaction.

1976, the Chiffons vs. George Harrison: The Chiffons claimed that Harrison based his hit song, “My Sweet Lord” on their song, “He’s so Fine.” Harrison admitted the similarity but said the melody came from a gospel song in the public domain. The court agreed with the Chiffons and the case introduced harsher penalties for infringement as well as a new term: “Subconscious Infringement.”

1994, Roy Orbison vs. 2 Live Crew: This case has a fascinating back story which is too long to talk about in a blog post. The important details of the case include 2 Live Crew parodying Orbison’s “Oh, Pretty Woman.” The publisher of the Orbison version did not give the Crew permission to sample the song, but the band chose to do so anyway. The resulting infringement case better defined the “Fair Use” doctrine while giving artists a solid defense for their parody songs.

Like other legal areas, it is important for copyright law to evolve and advance along with the times. Individuals in California and elsewhere in the nation can play a role in this evolution by seeking a legal solution when their original works are stolen, sampled or copied.

Source: Rolling Stone, “Songs on Trial: 10 Landmark Music Copyright Cases,” Jordan Runtagh, accessed Nov. 02, 2017