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Copyright Infringement Examples

Examples of copyright infringement

Copyright is a powerful legal tool used to protect a person’s creative work, including how it’s used, recreated, etc. It’s a defensive legal right that ensures the creator is the one in control of their intellectual property.

Copyright infringement, then, is what happens when someone uses copyrighted material without permission, in a way that the owner finds objectionable. From there, it’s a matter for the courts.

But when does copyright become established, and how far do these protections go? This blog will explore this question by listing famous copyright infringement examples, as well as a breakdown of each case, to illustrate the law in effect.

Is Copyright Infringement Illegal?

Copyright infringement can only occur when copyrighted material is used outside of permission. In the UK, and many other countries across the world, anything that you have created is automatically copyrighted material. That being said, this form of copyright is the weakest possible form. If you wanted to strengthen your copyright, then you’d need to register it officially with the country’s copyright office.

From there, you should have full control over your work created. So when someone violates these exclusive rights, you can pursue a valid copyright claim. Alleging copyright infringement becomes viable when any of the following happens:

  • Direct copy – This is a difficult form to deal with. If your work has been copied in part or full, then your copyright has been infringed.
  • Derivative Work – If derivative work has been done based on your work, such as through translations, adaptions etc. without permission, then your copyright has been infringed.
  • Distribution, Performance, Display – Distribution of your work without permission, especially in the realm of selling for profit, is a direct violation of your copyright law.

All in all, copyright infringement goes to the courts much in the same way the following examples have.

Breaking the Copyright Law

Famous Copyright Infringement Examples

The following are copyright infringement examples that went to court and defined many intellectual property rights.

Vanilla Ice vs. Queen and David Bowie

In 1990, Vanilla Ice created a hit named “Ice Ice Baby”. It was the first hip-hop song to hit the Billboard Hot 100 and achieved many accolades and a lot of revenue. However, a controversy began to arise as the music industry critics and fans noticed that the bassline was far too familiar to that of Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure.”

It wasn’t long before rumour became an accusation of unauthorised sampling, and talk of legal action began to prop up. Vanilla Ice’s initial decision was to insist that the bassline was his own, not someone else’s work – but David Bowie and his legal team were not convinced. They stated this was a clear case of copyrighted materials being used without permission.

Nonetheless, Legal Proceedings were never started. Both artists came together in a private settlement, many details of which have been kept confidential. That being said, it’s widely believed that Queen and David Bowie both received songwriting credit, as well as a significant portion of the royalties. Considering the massive success of the song, the royalties are expected to be in the millions. This settlement likely saved both parties from incurring substantial legal fees, which can escalate into the hundreds of millions in prolonged copyright disputes, emphasising the financial drain such legal battles can impose.

Considering that there was no legal battle, it’s easy to dismiss this dispute, but considering how much money was likely lost over the ordeal, many cite it as a stark and frankly embarrassing reminder of the possible consequences when copyright infringement occurs.

Marvin Gaye Estate vs Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke

In 2013, Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke released a smash hit named “Blurred Lines”, which went on to sell over 14.8 million copies in the music industry. The song was initially the highest point of their career, but soon after, the Marvin Gaye Estate accused the pair of copyright infringement.

Of course, Marvin Gaye was dead at the time, and it was his family pushing the fairly famous copyright case. They alleged that Blurred Lines copied the “feel” and “sound” of Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to give it up”. They claimed no melodies or lyrics were used, but the groove, instrumentation and atmosphere were all too close to Marvin Gaye’s artistry.

The case sent shockwaves throughout the industry and associated press. It sparked a debate about the boundaries between copying and being inspired by a piece of work. The court case was not settled out of court, but rather, went to trial.

What followed was a landmark decision that would set a precedent for copyright laws. The judge ruled in favour of the Gaye estate, awarding them millions of dollars in damages.

Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke claimed that copyright protection had gone too far and that derivative works would suffer as a result, and tried to appeal. Yet during the appeal, the court ruled that it would uphold its original decision.

Led Zeppelin vs Randy California Estate

In 2014, Led Zepellin’s iconic “Stairway to Heaven” was accused of copyright infringement. The estate of Randy California alleged that the opening guitar arpeggio of Stairway was incredibly similar to that of the instrumental track named “Taurus”, released by the band Spirit in 1968.

Randy California estate, the copyright owners, alleged that Led Zeppelin had full and easy access to the instrumental music files, as they performed at the same venues throughout the 1960s. The music structure and melody couldn’t have possibly been coincidental in the plaintiff’s eyes, and the ongoing case caught the attention of the public.

It brought up accusations of higher-ups in the music industry preying on lesser-known bands, as nobody had heard of Randy California, whereas Led Zeppelin was a worldwide star. Nonetheless, the judge ruled in Led Zeppelin’s favour.

The determination was that both had similarities, but they were limited to basic musical elements that many songs could theoretically have. Despite the lack of severe consequences for Led Zeppelin, this still went down as one of the most talked about and widely followed copyright infringement cases of all time.

Katy Perry vs Marcus Gray

Katy Perry dropped a pop hit in 2014 named “Dark Horse” alongside rapper Juicy J. When a Christian rapper named “Flame” heard it, he claimed that the song’s underlying beat and instrumental line was a copy of his own 2008 track named “Joyful Noise”.

The main point of contention was a 16-second segment in Dark Horse that sounded too similar to a repeating ostinato in Joyful Noise. Gray’s song had been available online and had garnered a following in the Christian Hip Hop community, and Gray alleged that is how Katy Perry and her team stole the music.

The controversy caused a stir for multiple reasons, but one caveat that caught people’s eye was the fact that Katy Perry claimed that the song was not copyright infringement and that any similarity to someone else’s work is purely coincidental, hinting that she may have “subconsciously” copied the work.

In a surprise twist, against what many initially thought, the judge ruled in the favour of Gray. He was awarded millions of dollars in damage, which led to widespread fear of copyright owner protection being too strong.

On appeal, however, the decision was overturned on appeal, and Katy Perry got away with having to personally pay the money to Gray.

Star Wars vs Flash Gordon

Star Wars is a film nobody needs an introduction to. George Lucas created the sci-fi masterpiece series in 1977 and had drawn influence from mythology, classic literature and even comic books. One of the comic book inspirations was “Flash Gordon”, popular in the 30s and 40s.

When George Lucas released the first Star Wars film, the Flash Gordon publishers concluded that the two works created had too many similarities to be a coincidence. The publisher cited that the plot elements, characters and visual aesthetics were all too similar. This is especially the case since George Lucas was trying to buy the rights to the comic.

The lawsuit dragged on for years. Both sides presented arguments and evidence against one another. Highlighted were the protagonists being hero farm boys, or the fact that they both battle evil empires etc. However, Lucas said that whilst he did incorporate these elements, they were done with such a unique visual style and with rich, complex world-building. Furthermore, Akira Kurosawa’s Samurai films have also been a massive influence, as well as a wide range of other sources.

Nonetheless, the court eventually ruled in George Lucas’ favour. This, we feel, highlights that there is a clear boundary between inspiration and theft.

Copyrighted Content


Overall, these copyright infringement examples highlight the very case-by-case nature of copyright law. Nonetheless, copyright infringement has definite boundaries, exemplified by some of these infringement cases.



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