How Music Copyright Lawsuits Are Scaring Away New Hits (2024)

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The boom in copyright lawsuits is rattling the music industry —to the point where some artists and songwriters are spending tens of thousands of dollars on insurance policies

Most of the world knows Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and T.I.’s “Blurred Lines” as a half-forgotten hit song from 2013. The music industry remembers it as its worst nightmare.

In the five years since a court ruled that “Blurred Lines” infringed on Marvin Gaye’s 1977 “Got to Give It Up,” demanding that Thicke and Williams fork over $5 million to the Gaye estate for straying too close to the older song’s “vibe,” the once-sleepy realm of music copyright law has turned into a minefield. Chart-topping musicians have been slapped with infringement lawsuits like never before, and stars like Ed Sheeran and Katy Perry are being asked to pay millions in cases that have many experts scratching their heads. Across genres, artists are putting out new music with the same question in the backs of their minds: Will this song get me sued?

“There is a lot of confusion about what’s permissible and what’s not,” says Sandy Wilbur, a forensic musicologist who served as an expert witness for the defense in the “Blurred Lines” case. Because cases are decided by “the average listener, who is not an educated musicologist or musician,” she notes, “labels are very afraid.” Since that game-changing ruling in 2015, Wilbur says, she’s received triple the number of requests from music companies to double-check new songs before they are even considered for release.

How did this culture of fear drift into the recording studio? The answer is twofold. While copyright laws used to protect only lyrics and melodies (a prime example is the Chiffons’ successful suit against George Harrison in 1976 for the strong compositional similarities between his “My Sweet Lord” and their “He’s So Fine”), the “Blurred Lines” case raised the stakes by suggesting that the far more abstract qualities of rhythm, tempo, and even the general feel of a song are also eligible for protection — and thus that a song can be sued for feeling like an earlier one. Sure enough, a jury in 2019 ruled that Katy Perry owed millions for ostensibly copying the beat of her hit “Dark Horse” from a little-known song by Christian rapper Flame, stunning both the music business and the legal community. “They’re trying to own basic building blocks of music, the alphabet of music that should be available to everyone,” Perry’s lawyer Christine Lepera warned in the case’s closing arguments.

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That case, which Perry’s team is currently in the process of appealing, suggests a second point: Plaintiffs in copycat cases are largely targeting megahit songs because they’ve seen where the money is, and the increasing frequency of those court battles in headlines is causing an avalanche effect of further infringement lawsuits.

All of this is striking fear into professional musicians’ hearts. A few months ago, Emily Warren, a songwriter who’s worked with the likes of Shawn Mendes and Dua Lipa, released a song with a country artist that had a similar chorus to a pop song released at the exact same time — a total coincidence, she says. “Even though I’d never heard [the other song], it still felt like a tricky thing,” Warren says. Neither of the two artists took any action against each other, but the situation opened Warren’s eyes to how easily sticky situations can arise by accident. “The more cases are publicized, the more fearful people are,” she says.

“We all feel like the system has failed us.” — Lucas Keller, founder of music management company Milk and Honey

While some record labels may have the budget to hire on-call musicologists who vet new releases for potential copyright claims, smaller players who can’t afford that luxury are turning toward a tried-and-true form of protection: insurance. Lucas Keller — the founder of music management company Milk and Honey, which represents writers and producers who’ve worked with everyone from Alessia Cara and Carrie Underwood to 5 Seconds of Summer and Muse — recently began encouraging all his songwriter clients to purchase errors-and-omissions insurance, which protects creative professionals from legal challenges to their intellectual property. “We all feel like the system has failed us,” Keller says. “There are a lot of aggressive lawyers filing lawsuits and going ham on people.” (He’s particularly critical of publishers whose rosters are heavier on older catalogs than new acts: “Heritage publishers who aren’t making a lot of money are coming out of the woodwork and saying, ‘We’re going to take a piece of your contemporary hit.’ ”)

Under E&O policies, insurance companies can cover several million dollars of an artist’s costs if they lose a copyright lawsuit. Joe Charles, senior vice president at insurance provider Alliant Insurance Services, says that as many as half of his personal A-list music clients — a roster of stars who already pay for tour insurance and other standard entertainment-industry policies — have recently shown interest in E&O coverage. “When a major claim is all over the press, we’ll get 10 to 20 calls from musicians asking how they can protect themselves and what it will cost,” Charles says. The number who’ve actually purchased the insurance is smaller due to the high costs, which can run from $20,000 to $250,000 a year, depending on the artist’s prior legal run-ins, their audience size, and how much they want to insure.


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Artists are understandably reluctant to publicly disclose that they have copyright insurance, which could open them up to an increase in lawsuits. But music attorney Bob Celestin, who’s helped represent acts like Pusha T and Missy Elliott, says it is safe to assume that the majority of artists who show up in Top 10 chart positions are covered in this way. Big labels, too, usually have comprehensive insurance policies that protect them against copyright issues. Yet these policies have gaps. “An artist could find themselves uninsurable if they’ve had numerous claims and the insurance companies have already paid out millions in costs and settlements,” Charles says. “Or they might find a carrier willing to write it, but the rates are going to be astronomical.”

“When a major claim is all over the press, we’ll get 10 to 20 calls from musicians asking how they can protect themselves and what it will cost.” — Joe Charles, senior vice president at Alliant Insurance Services

Songwriters, who may not have the financial wherewithal of celebrity artists but are equally liable for copyright claims, are often the most vulnerable. “We’re all nervous and afraid to fall into a battle over something as minor as a few notes or words,” says Ross Golan, a producer and songwriter who has released songs with stars like Ariana Grande and Justin Bieber. Warren says she’s even heard of some megawatt artists keeping musicologists on personal retainer to help them avoid lawsuits.

“There’s more conversation on the front-end as songs are being created,” says Joel Timen, vice president of A&R and publishing at Curb Word Entertainment. “A lot of my songwriters have been asking more questions: ‘Does this melody or pre-chorus section remind you of anything? Should we be careful?’”

The popularity of cheap music-production software, which offers the same features to every user, has added another layer of risk. “Music is now more similar than it is different, for the first time,” Golan says. “People are using the same sample packs, the same plug-ins, because it’s efficient.” Then there’s the issue of the finite number of notes, chord progressions, and melodies available. Or, as Wilbur puts it, “There are no virgin births in music. Music comes out of other music.”

The copyright lawsuit boom, and its unintended side effects, may be just getting started. In 2014, rock band Spirit accused Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page of lifting the opening guitar riff of “Stairway to Heaven” from a 1968 instrumental called “Taurus”; a jury threw out the case in 2016, determining that Plant and Page didn’t plagiarize the musical motif — only to see the case turned around two years later on appeal, when a three-judge panel ruled that the original trial involved errors in jury proceedings. (“The jury is a whole other conversation,” says Keller, the music manager. “In British court, they’d just ask a musicologist to decide. In American court, we bring in 10 random people.”) In 2019, the court of appeals decided to reconsider the original panel’s ruling; it will likely issue a decision in the spring of 2020.

Artists, songwriters, producers, and labels are now awaiting the next Zeppelin verdict, with many hoping that a judgment in Page and Plant’s favor could unwind some of the headache-inducing ambiguity introduced by the “Blurred Lines” ruling. Others see the case, which has a chance of going all the way up to the Supreme Court, as a reopening of Pandora’s box. Will the latest ruling clarify the scope of music copyright — or muddy it even further? “At what point is an element of creative expression protectable?” says media intellectual-property attorney Wesley Lewis. “Litigators are all hoping for more clarity.”

How Music Copyright Lawsuits Are Scaring Away New Hits (2024)


How does copyright affect the music industry? ›

Music Copyrights

General copyright law gives creators of specific work the rights to decide what others can do with their work. With copyright protections relating to music, artists can prevent the unauthorized use of their songs.

How much of a song do you have to change to avoid copyright? ›

By Eric Perrott, Esq.

What is the biggest music copyright case? ›

5 of the Biggest Copyright Lawsuits in Music
  1. Willie Dixon vs. Led Zeppelin. ...
  2. Ronnie Mack and The Chiffons v. George Harrison. ...
  3. Marvin Gaye Estate v. Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams. ...
  4. Ed Townsend Estate v. Ed Sheeran.
May 8, 2023

What song did Ed Sheeran get accused of copyright infringement? ›

A federal judge ruled that the parts of “Let's Get It On” that Sheeran was accused of infringing upon were too common for copyright protection. Sheeran won a separate jury trial over the songs in the same court this month.

What are the negative effects of copyright laws? ›

Copyright infringement can also result in civil judgments. Anyone found liable for civil copyright infringement can be ordered to pay damages, with fines ranging from $750 to $30,000 per work infringed. For “willful” infringement, a court may award up to $150,000 per work infringed.

What are the negative effects of copyright? ›

Penalties. Copyright violations can result in significant legal penalties. Copyright violators can be held liable for civil damages, court costs, and attorneys' fees. Separate criminal fines of up to $250,000 per offense, and even jail time, may also apply.

Does speeding up a song get rid of copyright? ›

It should be noted that remixing a commercial song, by speeding up or slowing down the master file, and releasing it publicly without the consent of the rightsholders is considered copyright infringement.

How much of a song can you play without getting sued? ›

Unfortunately, there are no fixed standards as to how much of a song you can use without infringing the song owner's copyright. Of course, the shorter you can make the clip, the stronger your argument for fair use protection.

What famous song has no copyright? ›

Top Six Most Popular Royalty-Free Songs
  • Take Me Out to the Ball Game. Singers Jack Norworth and Albert Von Tilzer recorded the original version of Take Me Out to the Ball Game in 1908. ...
  • Happy Birthday. ...
  • House of the Rising Sun. ...
  • Rockin' Robin. ...
  • Everybody Loves My Baby. ...
  • That's All Right.

How much can I get sued for copyright? ›

The law provides a range from $200 to $150,000 for each work infringed. Infringer pays for all attorneys fees and court costs. The Court can issue an injunction to stop the infringing acts. The Court can impound the illegal works.

Has an artist ever sued another artist for copyright infringement? ›

Robin Thicke & Pharrell Williams vs.

In 2013, the late R&B crooner's family sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for copyright infringement, saying their mega-hit "Blurred Lines" stole elements of Gaye's 1977 hit, "Got to Give It Up."

Have the Beatles ever sued for copyright? ›

“Come Together” A few months after September 1969, Chuck Berry's music publisher, Morris Levy, brought a copyright infringement action against The Beatles/Apple, claiming that their 1969 track 'Come Together' had lifted music and lyrics from Berry's 1956 track, 'You Can't Catch Me'.

What songs no longer have copyright? ›

Generally, any song or musical work published in 1925 or before in the US is in the public domain. As of January 1, 2022, musical compositions from 1926 and earlier will be in the public domain.

Which song was the subject of a famous copyright infringement lawsuit? ›

Vanilla Ice v.

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.

What are 3 examples of violating copyright laws? ›

What is copyright infringement?
  • Recording a film in a movie theater.
  • Posting a video on your company's website which features copyrighted words or songs.
  • Using copyrighted images on your company's website.
  • Using a musical group's copyrighted songs on your company's website.
May 11, 2023

What are the 3 limitations to copyright? ›

What are the 3 Limitations to Copyright? Three copyright limitations could impact a copyright infringement case. These include the fair use, first sale doctrine, and Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Does copyright help or hurt society? ›

When copyright enables creators to get paid, more creators make more works. And more creative and expressive works are good for society, because they help us develop arts, science, knowledge, and culture.

Has anyone gone to jail for copyright infringement? ›

Artur Sargsyan, 30, of Glendale, California, was sentenced by U.S. District Judge Timothy C. Batten, Sr., to five years in prison to be followed by three years of supervised release, and ordered to pay restitution in the amount of $458,200. He was also ordered to forfeit $184,768.87.

What is the main problem of copyright? ›

The issue with copyright is that it only safeguards the expression of ideas by the creator and not the underlying idea. Copyright is a type of intellectual property that applies to creative work. It is a legal right that gives exclusive rights to the creator of an original work to use and distribute it.

Why are people against copyright? ›

Economic arguments against copyright

There is an argument that copyright is invalid because, unlike physical property, intellectual property is not scarce and is a legal fiction created by the state. The argument claims that, infringing on copyright, unlike theft, does not deprive the victim of the original item.

How long until music loses its copyright? ›

As a general rule, for works created after January 1, 1978, copyright protection lasts for the life of the author plus an additional 70 years.

Should I copyright a song before I release it? ›

Registering with the U.S. Copyright Office is one of the most important actions you can take and it's something that you should want to do shortly after or before your music is released.

What is the 15 second or 8 bar rule? ›

The "15 Second" or "8 Bar" Rule

A common misconception among musicians is that we can legally use a piece of copyrighted material as long as we only use a small portion of it. The idea is that if you use just 8 bars of a composition or sample less than 15 seconds of a recording, you'll be protected.

Can you get sued for having the same song name? ›

The answer is yes! U.S. copyright law considers “names, titles, and short phrases” to possess an “insufficient amount of authorship or creativity.” That means song titles aren't long enough to enjoy the protection of a copyright.

How long of a clip is fair use? ›

You may have heard of "fair use," a copyright provision that permits you to use 10, 15 or 30 seconds of music without copyright obligation. That is, you understand that you can use a short section of a song without paying a fee.

Is a song copyrighted if I record it? ›

When you record a song, you may be creating two works that are protected by copyright: a musical work and a sound recording. A sound recording and the music, lyrics, words, or other content included in the recording are separate copyright-protected works.

Are old songs copyright free? ›

The copyright duration of composed music is the same as for books, paintings and other literary and artistic works: the author's lifetime + 70 years. Therefore, the musical compositions of old masters like Beethoven (1770 – 1827) or Mozart (1756 – 1791) are all in the public domain and you can freely use them.

What 80s songs are copyright free? ›

80s copyright free music
  • Nu Disco Energy. By JohnRosso. 02:23 / 00:00. ...
  • Retro Sunset. By JohnRosso. 02:21 / 00:00. ...
  • Come and Play. By EdRecords. 01:57 / 00:00. ...
  • King James Is Here. By Mike Cosmo. 01:59 / 00:00. ...
  • Star Drive. By EdRecords. 03:06 / 00:00. ...
  • I Stand On That. By Diamond Tunes. 01:15 / 00:00. ...
  • Play With Me. By Pecan Pie. 01:10 / 00:00.

What popular rap songs are not copyrighted? ›

Trendsetting Royalty Free Rap
  • We Made This. by Wolves. 3:12. 135. 15 30 60.
  • My Time. by Wolves. 2:46. 135. 15 30 60.
  • Where the Party at Tonight. by JAM Studio. 3:16. 130. 15 30 60.
  • The Game Is On. by Tonemassif. 2:37. 128. 15 30 60.
  • Name in Lights. by Wolves. 3:13. 120. 15 30 60.

How do you win a copyright lawsuit? ›

Note a copyright claimant must prove the following three elements, to win an infringement claim:
  1. A valid copyright exists (Registration provides a presumption of validity)
  2. The defendant copied the work without authorization.
  3. The infringing work is substantially similar to the protected work.

How do you avoid a copyright lawsuit? ›

Six steps to protect against copyright infringement claims
  1. Do not copy anything. ...
  2. Avoid non-virgin development. ...
  3. Avoid access to prior design work. ...
  4. Document right to use. ...
  5. Negotiate for enhanced warranty and indemnity clauses. ...
  6. Document your own work.

Do copyright claims cost money? ›

Filing a copyright application can cost hundreds, even thousands of dollars, and later there are renewal fees to contend with. The initial filing of a copyright application will cost between $50 and $65 depending on the type of form, unless you file online which will then only cost you $35.

Does copyright hurt artists? ›

Without copyright an artist could not make money. Copyright offers protection and stability that allows an artist to make art for a living, both while they are able to actively create art and after they are no longer physically capable of doing so.

Did Andy Warhol violate copyright? ›

In the 1980s, Andy Warhol created an illustration of the musician Prince, which drew heavily from an existing image by photographer Lynn Goldsmith. Now, four decades later, the Supreme Court has ruled that the Pop artist infringed on Goldsmith's copyright.

Is copying another artist's style illegal? ›

No, copyright does not protect an art style, only the finished work itself.

What song by the Beatles was banned? ›

^ Jump up to: a b Contrary to a number of other sources, author Martin Cloonan has claimed that, in fact, only one Beatles song was ever banned by the BBC – "A Day in the Life" from the album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

How much did Michael Jackson pay for the Beatles copyright? ›

It was sound financial advice that McCartney may have come to regret giving on August 14, 1985, when Michael Jackson purchased the publishing rights to the vast majority of the Beatles' catalog for $47 million, outbidding McCartney himself.

How do no copyright songs make money? ›

How do artists earn from royalty-free music? Royalty-free music simply refers to a single license giving you permission to use a track. This means artists can earn money from selling royalty-free licenses. But they can also earn royalties in other ways from the same songs.

How many seconds of a song can I use without copyright infringement? ›

Importantly, there is no set number of seconds of a song or film that automatically qualifies as fair use; each case is different.

Are 80s songs still copyrighted? ›

Songs written on or after January 1, 1978, have their author's rights protected for 70 years after their passing. The term ends 70 years after the death of the last individual author, or in cases where there are three or more authors, whenever the term would otherwise have ended.

Who sued Led Zeppelin for copyright? ›

'" The copyright battle dates to 2014, when the estate of Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe sued Led Zeppelin, alleging copyright infringement. Wolfe, whose stage name was Randy California, died in 1997.

What was the first copyrighted song? ›

The first song published under US copyright was The Kentucky Volunteer, by Carr's own house. In the first quarter of the 19th century alone, 10,000 pieces of popular music were printed by U.S. publishers.

Why was Led Zeppelin sued for copyright infringement? ›

The iconic rock band were accused of stealing the song's opening riff from a song called Taurus by US psych-rockers Spirit, recorded three years before the release of the album Led Zeppelin IV, which contained the rock behemoth.

How does copyright affect artists? ›

The owner of the copyright in a piece of artwork has the exclusive right to make copies, to sell or distribute copies, to prepare derivative works based on the copyrighted artwork, and to publicly display the artwork.

How does copyright law affect the industry? ›

Copyrights can potentially result in costly lawsuits that can hurt small businesses. For example, if a small business makes a parody of a popular song for an advertisem*nt, the creator of the song could bring a lawsuit against the company.

Why is intellectual property important in the music industry? ›

It serves as a proof of ownership and prevents producers and musicians from being robbed of their own work. Intellectual property rights awards artists' security against others copying their creation. The work cannot be copied unless the musician or the recording studio authorizes it.

Is it worth it to copyright music? ›

It's YOUR intellectual property. That might seem obvious, but it's worth repeating: YOU control the copyright to the songs you write and the recordings you create. Ownership of your music copyright gives you leverage, protection, and power when it comes to making money from your music catalog.

Are copyright laws more helpful or harmful for artists? ›

Advantages of Copyrights

Copyright laws encourage protection of the creativity of original creators. Without this protection, creators would have less incentive to produce and sell new works.

Is it illegal to sing a copyrighted song? ›

Creators of original words, like music, hold copyright protection over those works, meaning that they have exclusive rights to perform or copy those tunes. If you infringe on those rights, taking their tunes without permission, you could face legal liability.

How does copyright protect her as an artist? ›

A copyright protects your original creation from being copied, mutilated, repurposed or used for advertising without your consent. This includes derivatives of your work, digital reproduction, and use across every medium. How Long Does Copyright Last? Copyright begins when a work is created.

Does copyright infringement hurt the recording industry? ›

People often take music or film copyrights and the concept of "piracy" lightly, but it is not a victimless crime. The entertainment industry loses billions of dollars each year due to copyright infringement, putting jobs and careers at risk.

Do copyright laws encourage or inhibit creativity? ›

By clearly defining ownership rights to creative works, copyright promotes the knowledge-sharing and collaboration necessary to sustain creativity, and supports access to creative works around the world.

What is the IP law for music? ›

How does IP law protect musicians and the music industry? Copyrights: Copyrights give musicians and songwriters the exclusive right to reproduce, distribute, and perform their music. This means that no one can use their music without their permission, and they can control how their music is sold and distributed.

What is the intellectual property law of music? ›

There are four types of intellectual property: Patents, Trademarks, Copyright & Registered Designs. Artistic works (books, movies, music, sound recordings, plays etc) are protected by copyright.

How much does it cost to copyright a song 2023? ›

Registration of a claim in an original work of authorship
Registration of a claim in a group of unpublished works$85
Registration of a claim in a group of published photographs or a claim in a group of unpublished photographs$55
Registration of a claim in a group of works published on an album of music$65
24 more rows

Is music copyright outdated? ›

How Long Does Copyright Law Last for Music? Generally, any song or musical work published in 1925 or before in the US is in the public domain. As of January 1, 2022, musical compositions from 1926 and earlier will be in the public domain.

Does music ever lose copyright? ›

The most common way for a work to enter the public domain is for its copyright term to expire—this is the case for musical compositions published prior to January 1, 1926. Sound recordings, on the other hand, were generally protected until at least 2022.


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