October/November 2013

by David McLaughlin

Lawful Truth: Lessons of Five Big Music Legal Controversies

by David McLaughlin

Lawful Truth: Lessons of Five Big Music Legal Controversies

Legal disputes have long been a part of the music industry and the words of one famous song “send lawyers, guns and money,”” often don’’t seem to be too far from the truth in some of the crazier situations you hear about. In this column, Lessons Learned: What Five Big Legal Controversies In Music History Have Taught Us (and in keeping with NZM’’s 25 year theme) we will look at five of the more ‘interesting’ legal controversies from the music industry, and provide some tips to help you avoid similar unpleasant legal issues arising in your own dealings in the music industry.


1. Vanilla Ice vs Queen and Bowie – In 1990, Vanilla Ice’’s number one hit Ice Ice Baby used a sample from the bassline of Under Pressure by Queen and David Bowie – without providing any credit, royalties or arranging any prior licence or permission. Vanilla Ice claimed that the melodies were different because he added an additional note, but after a legal battle he was forced to settle out of court with their majesties for an undisclosed, but presumably large amount.

TIP: Always get the clearance from any applicable copyright holders before incorporating samples of their work into your songs.
2. George Harrison vs Bright Tunes Music Corp. – In 1976 Harrison’’s hit single My Sweet Lord was held to plagiarise The Chiffon’s’ song He’’s So Fine, despite a lack of evidence that Harrison intended to do so. The court held that although Harrison was not purposefully plagiarising, he was guilty of ‘subconscious plagiarism’ and had to pay a whacking $1,599,987 to Bright Tunes. Not so fine really.

TIP: Take time to do some research before releasing your one hit song to try to avoid it accidentally infringing copyright by virtue of being substantially similar to someone else’’s song.


3. John Fogerty vs Fantasy Inc. – In 1993 Fogerty, the primary songwriter for Creedence Clearwater Revival, was sued by his former label Fantasy Inc. (who owned the rights to all his prior songs) because his new single, The Old Man Down The Road, sounded too similar to CCR’’s hit Run Through The Jungle. Eventually Fogerty won the case as the jury decided that the two songs were not the same, however the case made Fogerty the first songwriter ever to be sued for self-plagiarism!

TIP: Be vigilant with the rights you are granting in any agreement, bearing in mind that if you sign away the rights to your songs, it may impact on the music you can produce in the future.
4. Neil Young vs Geffen Records – In 1984 Young was sued by his record label for not sounding enough like himself. Geffen Records accused Young of violating his contract by recording ‘unrepresentative’ albums, because the music Young was making at the time was considered too country and not rock ’n’ roll enough for the label’s liking. In other words, the label didn’’t think that Neil Young was making Neil Young music. Eventually the lawsuit was settled, with Geffen Records apologising. Nonetheless, this was a landmark case for the music industry as Young became the first artist to be sued for not being himself.

TIP: Make sure that with any deals you enter into with a recording label that you are able to retain sufficient creative freedom to allow you to continue to develop as an artist.

5. Mike Joyce vs Morrissey and others – In 1989, after The Smiths had broken up, the drummer Mike Joyce sued Morrissey, the lead singer, and Johnny Marr, the lead guitarist, to obtain an equal share of the band’s royalties. Morrissey and Marr claimed that everyone had orally agreed that Morrissey and Marr would each take 40% of the band’s recording and performance royalties, while Joyce and bassist Andy Rourke would each just receive 10%. The court held in favour of Joyce, ordering that he receive around 1 million pounds in back payment and 25% of royalties from then onwards.

TIP: Any agreement between band members should be in writing and include a clear provision as to how income (such as from APRA, Recorded Music NZ, publishing, merchandising and shows) is to be split.

The legal wrangles above are examples of just a few of the numerous cases that have emerged in the music industry in recent times. Although all high profile international cases, they are definitely still representative of some of the common situations and problems that arise for musicians in NZ today.

If you make sure to bear in mind the five ‘tips’ noted above, you will go a long way to preventing major legal headaches in your own music career. As the old adage goes, history tends to repeat itself, so perhaps we can all learn from the issues that have befallen of some of the world’’s most famous (or rather, ‘infamous’ in the case of Vanilla Ice) musicians.


David McLaughlin ( is the principal of McLaughlin Law (

Disclaimer: This article is intended to provide a general outline of the law on the subject matter. Further professional advice should be sought before any action is taken in relation to the matters described in the article.