May 21, 2018 / 1:23 AM

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5 Songs You Didn't Know Violated Copyright: Johnny Cash, Radiohead and More

 

Music samples and their legality has been a hot-button issue in music news this year: First, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were forced to pay the estate of Marvin Gaye over similarities between their smash hit "Blurred Lines" and his "Got To Give It Up," and now Jay Z and Timbaland will head to court to establish whether they properly licensed an Egyptian music sample found on "Big Pimpin'." Although courts have seen more action from those whose copyrights have been infringed recently, it's hardly a new phenomenon. Here are five hits from years past that were busted for being a little too close to another song for comfort. It's important to note just little listeners today remember the lawsuits.

"Folsom Prison Blues" by Johnny Cash (1955)

Those familiar with Johnny Cash's biography know that, although he died a beloved member of the country community and simply a good person, his past is much more checkered, from drug abuse to nearly killing off the California Condor. Few would believe that one of the greatest songwriters in American history would flat-out steal lyrics, however that's exactly what he did with "Folsom Prison Blues," one of his earliest and biggest hits. A number of the ideas on the track—prison life and trains—were themes popularized by the blues and folk music that Cash enjoyed, so no one faults him for that. But less than one line into "Folsom Prison Blues," he issues the famous line "I hear the train a-comin', it's rollin' 'round the bend." That's more than just similar to Gordon Jenkins' line from "Crescent City Blues"...it's exactly the same. Although "Folsom" came out just two years after "Crescent," the former song wasn't released as a single until the '70s, when it topped the country charts. Jenkins caught wind nearly 20 years after his song was released and took Cash to court accordingly, where the latter paid him $75,000. The good news: That's the only line from "Folsom" that's was lifted from elsewhere. The infamous "I killed a man in Reno, just to watch him die" is all Cash.

"Come Together" by The Beatles (1969)

John Lennon, for as progressive as he would become as a songwriter, would always reflect that good ol' rock 'n' roll would always be his favorite. That came back to bite him when he and The Beatles were busted for borrowing from Chuck Berry without the proper permissions. "Come Together" sounds almost nothing like the rocker's "You Can't Catch Me," and that's by design: Lennon and Paul McCartney knew of the similarities and slowed it down accordingly, to its current, renowned pace. That doesn't mean it's okay to borrow lyrics however. Lennon's "here comes ol' flat-top, he come groovin' up slowly " is more-or-less the same as Berry's "here come a flat-top, he was movin' up with me." Berry himself didn't bring a lawsuit, but the Big Seven Music Group Corp. did (as it was the publisher for the music). Lennon settled out of court in a deal that involved him releasing three Berry covers on his future solo albums, which would in turn create more royalty payouts for their original performer. Those tracks include "Ya Ya" and an actual cover of "You Can't Catch Me" during 1975 and later track "Angel Baby."

"Down Under" by Men At Work (1981)

The Men At Work have created a nightmare for Australians traveling abroad, as we're sure Aussies roll their eyes every time they hear the '80s single "Down Under." Appropriately, "Down Under" also features a key influence from the second most-stereotypical song in Australian history: the children's classic "Kookaburra." Once again, the rights-holders for the latter song had no idea that they had been ripped off until several decades later. The Australian quiz show Spicks and Specks asked the question "What children's song is contained in the song 'Down Under'?" It had never struck Larrikin Music, the rights-holder to "Kookaburra" following the death of songwriter Marion Sinclair, that their property was featured in the song. Nor, apparently, had Men At Work. The similarities here are tied to the flute melody played in the song, not lyrics, and a court agreed that the riff was convincingly similar to the one in "Kookaburra." The band was forced to give Larrikin a 5 percent songwriting credit as a result.

"Creep" by Radiohead (1992)

This is one of the lesser known copyright issues addressed in this list, as well as one of the least obvious examples of copyright infringement, as well as one of the quickest reactions from the original rights-holders. The issue in question wasn't lyrical borrowing or even instrumental borrowing in a manner as obvious as Men At Work's example above. Rather, the chord progression used in both "Creep" and The Hollies' "The Air That I Breathe" were the same. Radiohead's Thom Yorke and Johnny Greenwood didn't do themselves any favors in the case, acknowledging that they were fans of the '70s track, which allowed songwriters Albert Hammond and Mike Hazelwood to sue for plagiarism, grabbing a 50 percent songwriting credit as a result.

"Girlfriend" by Avril Lavigne (2007)

"Girlfriend" is one of Avril Lavigne's most notorious singles, formally confirming her entry into the pop world inhabited by the Britney Spears of the world and away from the Hot Topic scene. Few realize it was the basis for a big lawsuit from The Rubinoos, who claim that its lyrical style was borrowed from the band's '70s single "I Want To Be Your Boyfriend." Representatives for Lavigne suggested that the claims were absurd, noting the difference in meter and the fact that the Rubinoos themselves had based their hit on The Rolling Stones' "Get Off Of My Cloud." Surprisingly...The Rubinoos members agreed and dropped the case (a rarity in these incidents). A successful lawsuit might have prevented Dr. Luke, the song's producer, from making similar mistakes in the future however. He's currently being sued for the breakbeat used during Jessie J's "Price Tag," borrowed from Black Heat's "Zimba Ku."

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