On Monday, Bob Dylan broke records for the largest single-artist sale of a solo act’s catalogue when he sold his music to Universal Music Publishing Group – including the rights to the song “The Weight,” written by Robbie Robertson of The Band (at the time, Robertson was earning a salary from Dylan).
Feuds between former collaborators who have now become rivals aren’t exactly rare in the music business, and creatives often look to other artists for inspiration. But a fine line exists between “giving a nod” to a muse and blatant copyright infringement. And when a court decides a musician has crossed that line, it can result in an ugly legal battle and cost millions of dollars. Here’s a look at some of the most notorious music rights battles in pop music history.
Taylor Swift vs. Scooter Braun
To help launch her career, a young Swift inked a deal with Big Machine in 2004, granting the label the rights to her master recordings to her first six albums in exchange for a cash advance. When Scooter Braun bought Big Machine in June 2019, he gained ownership of the bulk of Swift’s music. They are still fighting for control.
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Robin Thicke & Pharrell Williams vs. Marvin Gaye
When Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” (co-written by Pharrell Williams) vaulted to mega-hit status, parts of it sounded eerily similar to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” In fact, the late soul singer’s family thought so, too, and sued for copyright infringement. A judge ruled in Gaye’s favor, ordering the duo to pay $7.3 million to the Gaye family, plus 50 percent of the song’s future royalties.
Prince vs. Warner Bros.
While Prince received a hefty $100 million contract from Warner Bros., his dispute wasn’t about the moola. Prince didn’t want to follow the label’s promotion schedule, preferring to release his music at his own pace. They settled the dispute in 1994. Prince went on to release two more albums for Warner Bros. before moving on to EMI-Capitol.
Dr. Luke vs. Kesha
Pop star Kesha has been fighting a legal battle with music producer Lukasz Gottwald (a.k.a. Dr. Luke) for six years. She accused Dr. Luke of sexual assault and emotional abuse back in 2014 (which he denied). He turned around and sued Kesha for defamation and breach of contract. While the alleged assault charge is still pending, Kesha was ordered to pay $374,000 to Dr. Luke’s company for contract breach.
Ray Parker Jr. vs. Huey Lewis and the News
When Huey Lewis declined an offer to write the theme song for the “Ghostbusters” movie due to a scheduling conflict, the producers asked Ray Parker Jr. to write it, guiding him to mimic the sound of Lewis.
Alleging that Parker stole the melody from one of Lewis’ songs (“I Want a New Drug”), Lewis sued. Though the pair settled out of court (with a confidentiality agreement to not speak publicly about the lawsuit), Lewis talked about it on VH1’s Behind the Music, spurring Parker to countersue Lewis soon after.
Destiny’s Child vs. Destiny’s Stepchild
Founding Destiny’s Child members LaTavia Roberson and Letoya Luckett got booted from the band when they expressed concern over Matthew Knowles (Beyoncé’s father and the band manager) giving preferential treatment to his daughter Beyoncé. With the case eventually settled out of court, the pair received writing credits and royalties for their contributions.
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Nirvana vs. Courtney Love
Ex-Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic and drummer Dave Grohl battled Courtney Love (Kurt Cobain’s widow) for the group’s royalties. Love had previously sued Novoselic and Grohl for control of Nirvana’s legacy and prevented them from releasing the group’s final song, “You Know You’re Right,” as part of a commemorative collection.
Vanilla Ice vs. Queen & David Bowie
As a 1980’s pop-rap star, Vanilla Ice dipped a little too deeply into the bass line of the 1981 collaborative hit “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie for his song “Ice Ice Baby.” Queen and Bowie reps threatened a copyright infringement suit but the case was settled out of court, with Bowie and Queen getting songwriting credits for the song. While Ice also paid an undisclosed sum, he also tarnished his reputation.
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