Skip to main content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.
Musicians Insitute Library

Music Copyright and Licensing

This is a guide to basic copyright and licensing for musicians. NOTE: THIS IS NOT LEGAL ADVICE. FOR SPECIFIC INFORMATION ABOUT COPYRIGHT OR LICENSING PLEASE SEEK LEGAL COUNSEL.

Recent Cases

The Estate of Randy Wolfe (AKA Randy California) v. Led Zeppelin

The Estate of Randy Wolfe, the late-guitarist for the band Spirit, alleged copyright infringement. They claimed that Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" copied a musical motif from Spirit's "Taurus." The case began in 2014 and was originally in favor of Randy Wolfe's Estate, however appeals in the 9th Circuit were just released in March 2020 in favor of Led Zeppelin. This case somewhat contradicts the ruling in the Thicke/Pharrell v. Gaye case (see below). For more information, read the news articles on the outcome.

The Estate of Jimmy Smith v. Drake

Similar to some of the landmark cases below, Drake licensed a part of a song called "Jimmy Smith Rap" in his song "Pound Cake/Paris Morton Music 2." They claimed that Drake did not license the composition (though he licensed the master). After several years of back and forth, the court of appeals ruled that Drake's use of the sample is fair use as it is transformative. For more information about this case read this article from the Hollywood Reporter.

Lana del Rey v. Radiohead

Lawyers representing the music publishers for Radiohead claimed that Lana Del Rey used the same chord progression and other musical elements from "Creep" in her song "Get Free." While it never went to trial, Lana Del Rey claimed that they settled, though no settlement has been announced. Interestingly, Radiohead had been sued by another band over "Creep" and they also settled out of court. 

Ed Sheeran v. Marvin Gaye

Ed Townsend, who is the beneficiary of some of Gaye's copyrights and a co-creator, is arguing that Sheeran's song "Thinking Out Loud" is infringing on Gaye's "Let's Get It On" as it takes from the melody, harmony, and rhythm of Gaye' song. The case has yet to go to trial, but stay tuned in!

Landmark Cases

Vanilla Ice v. Queen and David Bowie

Queen and David Bowie sued Vanilla Ice claiming that the bass line in "Ice Ice Baby" was a direct copy of "Under Pressure." Vanilla Ice argued that they weren't the same because he added an extra beat. The court ruled in Queen and Bowie's favor and Vanilla Ice had to pay an undisclosed sum.

Robin Thicke & Pharrell Williams v. Marvin Gaye

The estate of Marvin Gaye argued that Thicke and Williams stole the "general vibe" and certain percussive elements of "Got to Give It Up" for their song "Blurred Lines." The court ruled in Gaye' favor. Thicke and Williams paid $5.3 million in damages and will pay a 50% royalty fee making this one of the biggest payouts in music copyright history.

John Fogerty v. John Fogerty

One of the strangest cases ever conducted. Fogerty used to be part of a band called Creedence Clearwater Revival, or CCR, and wrote the song "Run Through the Jungle." 15 years later, Fogerty was no longer part of the band and he released the song "The Old Man Down the Road." The label for CCR sued him for copyright infringement. After one of the most interesting arguments in legal history, where Fogerty brought his guitar to court and demonstrated how the songs were different, the court rule they weren't the same song. He then countersued the label, which went all the way to the Supreme Court and he won, creating a legal precedent!

Roy Orbison v. 2 Live Crew

Roy Orbison sued 2 Live Crew saying that their use of his song "Oh Pretty Woman" in their song just called "Pretty Woman" was infringement. 2 Live Crew did use the full recording of his song, but they rapped over it, changing the meaning to something humorous. This is another case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The court ruled that, while it is the same song, it was not infringement because it was a parody, which is transformative and often a form of criticism, therefore a fair use. This decision is a precedent that protects all other parody artists like Weird Al Yankovic

The Verve vs. The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones sued the Verve for their song "Bittersweet Symphony" which contained a sample from "The Last Time." Originally, the Verve had licensed the use of 5 notes from their song in exchange for 50% of their royalties. The Rolling Stones claimed that they used a larger portion than was agreed upon. The court ruled in their favor. As a result, they forfeited all of their royalties and publishing rights. They were sued again later for their mechanical rights. Verve had to give up all their rights to the song until May of 2019, when the Rolling Stones signed over all their publishing rights for that song to the Verve. Read more about that here.

Please note that this guide is merely to educate people on the law and does not contain any legal advice. If you have a legitimate question about copyright, please consult with a lawyer.