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Five worst moments in musical plagiarism

How awesome is "Big Pimpin'," by Jay-Z? Really awesome. But some folks argue that its awesomeness comes courtesy of an unlicensed sample, and they'd like to be compensated.

A new round of legal claims has been brought against HOV by a handful of heirs and music publishers who argue that the track samples an Egyptian classic known as "Khosara, Khosara" without having cleared the sample for use. It turns out this is just the most recent in a series of legal battles over the song, which stretches back several years.

The issue is legally convoluted by the statute of limitations (the song's been out for more than a decade now), the fact that Jay-Z paid someone who claimed to have the exclusive rights to the track back in 1995, and a vague Egyptian legal standard known as "moral rights."

Hip-hop's sample-heavy foundation brought copyright law to the forefront of entertainment law in the '80s and '90s; the issue of copyright infringement and musical plagiarism has a rich tradition that spans genres and eras. So while the battle over "Big Pimpin'" winds its way through the court system, take a moment to reflect on some of the greatest moments in creative thievery.

5. George Harrison vs. The Chiffons After being a Beatle, it might seems like anything is possible in the music world, but jacking a melody still wasn't kosher for George Harrison. When he dropped "My Sweet Lord" in 1971, the song rushed up the charts with a bullet, but some of its success might have been the familiarity some listeners felt when hearing the tune. The Bright Tunes Music Corporation certainly heard something they recognized, the melody to "He's so Fine" by the Chiffons, a tune for which BTM owned the rights. They filed suit the month after "My Sweet Lord" was released, and a judge found Harrison guilty of "subconscious plagiarism," meaning that he didn't intend to steal the tune, but he still did so by accident. BTM wanted 75 percent of the royalties for the tune, but ended up winning a check for $587,000 instead.

4. Coldplay vs. Joe Satriani Coldplay's Chris Martin has been accused of musical theft on several occasions, but the claim that Martin had lifted the chord progression for the 2008 hit "Viva la Vida" from guitar wizard Joe Satriani's 2004 tune "If I Could Fly" drew the most attention. Satriani filed suit in an L.A. court the day after Coldplay was nominated for seven Grammy awards (ouch). The case sent music theorists and guitar teachers scrambling to decode the similarities of the chord progression, and whether Satriani was right, but the real answer will probably remain a secret. The case was dismissed with prejudice in September 2009, which means Satriani can't file another claim in the case. It also means that Coldplay probably chose to settle out of court rather than try to fight a prolonged legal battle.

3. Cypress Hill vs. Syl Johnson Syl Johnson may not be a household name, but the soul singer's catalogue has been heavily mined by hip-hop producers over the years, and Syl has made a nice chunk of change from licensing (way more than he made at the peak of his career). So when he heard that Cypress Hill had used a snippet of his tune "Is It Because I'm Black" on the Black Sunday track "Interlude," he tried to get what he was rightfully owed. The case was filed in '03, seeking $29 million in damages, but due to a legal loophole in federal copyright law (Johnson recorded the tune prior to passage of the copyright law in '72, but never filed retroactively for the rights to that tune), a judge sided with Cypress Hill in 2008. Johnson appealed, claiming the first judge was insane in the membrane, but the case was dismissed last year. That same track was sampled by RZA for "Hollow Bones," off Wu-Tang's The W (although RZA probably paid for it). Johnson is currently embroiled in a legal battle with Kanye West and Jay-Z over an unlicensed use of another tune of his ("Different Strokes") on Watch the Throne's deluxe-edition release.  

2. Michael Bolton vs. The Isley Brothers While hip-hop producers might have a tradition of flipping Isley Bros. records for beats, it was the infamous Michael Bolton who felt the brothers' wrath in a courtroom back in '91. Bolton released a song called "Love Is a Wonderful Thing" that shared some striking lyrical similarities with the Isleys' 1964 hit "Love is a Wonderful Thing." Oops. Bolton and his co-author argued that their version was different, but that since love is in fact a wonderful thing, they were guilty only of feeling a little emotional. The judge disagreed and awarded the Isleys $5.4 million in damages. Bolton was shocked and appalled by the ruling, and tried to circumvent it by offering to buy the rights to the Isleys' entire catalogue (if he owned the rights, the case would no longer have merit). They didn't take the offer, but opted to stick with the ruling in their favor. At the time, it was the largest such copyright-infringement penalty awarded.

1. Vanilla Ice vs. Queen and David Bowie Without a doubt, one of the most famous cases of copyright infringement of all time has to be the suit that followed in the wake of Vanilla Ice's chart-topping hit "Ice Ice Baby." The Ice man's tune was built on the iconic bass line from Queen and David Bowie's hit "Under Pressure." The original climbed to the top of the charts in 1981, and then was borrowed by Vanilla Ice without permission less than a decade later (never a good idea to illegally sample things everyone will recognize immediately). The rapper claimed that he'd added a note to the bass line, making it his own, but nobody was buying that line. Eventually, a settlement was reached that divided the songs royalties into thirds, with proceeds (and publishing credits) going to Ice, Queen and Bowie. Besides further marginalizing Vanilla Ice's career, the controversy inspired some mocking rhymes by Ice's contemporaries 3rd Bass in their tune "Pop Goes the Weasel." They jabbed, "Ya boosted the record/Then you looped, you looped it/And now you're getting sued/Kinda stupid."



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