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Stairway to Litigation

Lana Del Rey and six of the biggest copyright infringements in recent music history.


Lana, we love you, but fuck.

Of course the first 80 seconds of “Get Free” was inspired by Radiohead’s 1992 breakthrough “Creep”. It’s a direct lift. Subliminally or on purpose, there’s no way your 32-year-old talented self or team of producers didn’t recognise the replica chord progression and vocal melody. Why else the willingness to offer Thom Yorke 40 percent of profits from the sweet tune?

But does Radiohead deserve 100 percent of the profits? Probs not given the rest of the song takes a massive turn from the opening. 40 sounds like a pretty sweet deal.

But you ain’t the first to cop the wrath of songwriters past. Here are six of the biggest copyright lawsuits in recent-ish music history.

Led Zeppelin v Spirit

It’s arguably the most influential rock song of all time, Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” remaining heavy in the mainstream consciousness more than 46 years after its 1971 release. Radio won’t let us forget it.

It’s drawn numerous covers and parodies—think Wayne’s World and that seminal 90s track “Hairway to Steven”, courtesy of the Butthole Surfers. But most recently, it’s drawn the ire of U.S District Judge Gary Klausner.

In 2016 he gave the green light for Robert Plant and Jimmy Page to face a copyright trial, brought about by bass player Mark Andes of little known 1960s American group, Spirit, back in 2014. It’s not the song but the opening guitar riff that was in question, the descending chord progression determined to be eerily similar to Spirit’s 1968 instrumental release “Taurus”. Making the waters even murkier? The fact Zeppelin opened for Spirit in their debut US tour of ’68/’69. The lawsuit filed by Andes and a trustee of the late Taurus composer Randy Wolfe sought little of the $550million in previous earnings—but a posthumous songwriting credit for Wolfe (died in 1997) and a share of future profits. However, Plant and Page successfully argued they created the riff without influence and were awarded victory.

The Verve v The Rolling Stones

“Bittersweet Symphony”. It’s a song that defines the 1990s and its seminal composition has earned millions, courtesy of advertising licensing and venue play. But The Verve’s Richard Ashcroft has seen only $1000 of the fortune. Why? Because the repetitive orchestral loop is a sample of an orchestral version of The Rolling Stones hit “The Last Time”. The Verve’s management managed to clear the rights from the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra but failed to purchase the underlying rights of the original composition from Mick Jagger and Keith Richards’ publisher ABKCO. As such, not only did ABCKO negotiate full publishing rights to the song, but for it to be released with Richards and Jagger credited as co-writers. They received millions of dollars in royalties as a result and a Grammy nomination for Song of the Year to boot.

Sam Smith v Tom Petty

This one ended up a little better for Sam Smith, whose 2015 hit “Stay With Me” was immediately pegged for sounding identical to the Petty classic, “Won’t Back Down.” Ok, identical is a stretch. It’s way slower and hard to pick at first, but listen closely and the tune and melody of the chorus are spot on Petty—just not as nasal. Again, it wasn’t the artist but Petty’s publisher who instigated the lawsuit. But courtesy of Petty’s chilled SoCal nature, the matter was settled out of court and Petty scored a sneaky “co-written” by credit.

Robin Thicke v Marvin Gaye

Of every song here, “Blurred Lines” is the most blatant rip-off. Making matters worse, the fact Thicke (and to a lesser extent Pharrell Williams) refused to acknowledge as much. So a U.S court did it for them, ruling it a massive infringement against Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” and ordering them to pay his estate more than $7 million dollars for copyright damage and infringement. In the words of Forrest Gump: Thick is as Thicke does. Or something to that effect.

Mark Ronson v The Gap Band

Long-time DJ and producer Mark Ronson cracked the international market with the 2014 hit “Uptown Funk” featuring Bruno Mars. However, the notoriety didn’t come without its problems, with the record label for 1970s group The Gap Band filing a suit and claiming the song’s chorus was identical to 1979 “Oops Upside Your Head”. And they were right, a court giving the band co-written by status and a 17.5 percent share of all earnings. That’s a total of 11 credited songwriters to write one hit in 2014. Maybe it has all be done before.

Coldplay v Joe Satriani

Another UK outfit, another infringement case against an American band. There seems to be a pattern here. And Coldplay’s 2008 No.1 hit “Viva La Vida” is the perpetrator at hand, settling out of court with guitar teacher to the stars Satriani for the similarities to his 2004 instrumental “If I Could Fly”. He mightn’t be a household name, but Satriani is responsible the talents such as Metallica’s Kirk Hammett, and Steve Vai.

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