Copyright Infringement

Six Famous Copyright Infringement Cases

As a creator, you want to reap the rewards of your work. Luckily, United States copyright law protects you when other people use your work without permission.

The U.S. Copyright Office defines copyright infringement: “As a general matter, copyright infringement occurs when a copyrighted work is reproduced, distributed, performed, publicly displayed, or made into a derivative work without the permission of the copyright owner.”

Copyright law covers all creative works, including literature, art, movies, music, computer code, photography and more.

When someone uses a copyright owner’s work without permission, the copyright owner can take legal action to stop infringement and even get money damages.

Here are six famous copyright infringement cases that show us what can happen.


Copyright Infringement

There are a lot of music-related copyright infringement law suits, mainly because a lot of music in the electronic age relies on sampling. Since music has a way of building on rhythms, melodies and beats that came before, musicians tend to have trouble avoiding lawsuits like these.

Blurred Lines

One recent copyright lawsuit was a dispute over Robin Thicke’s 2013 “Blurred Lines” and its similarity to Marvin Gaye’s 1977 “Got to Give It Up.”

I’ll wait here while you compare the two songs using those links to Youtube.

Thicke’s lawyer argued that the songs were similar because of the atmosphere and feeling of the two songs, and not because of any specific elements that were copied.

Unfortunately, the jury did not agree. In 2015, the jury found that Thicke and Pharrell Williams, who had a songwriting credit on the track, were guilty of copyright infringement. The court ultimately awarded $7.3 million to Gaye’s family.

Ice Ice Baby

If you’ve ever listened to Vanilla Ice’s 1990 hit “Ice Ice Baby,” you probably noticed it has the same opening riff as Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure.”

Seriously, go listen to the songs on Youtube before you read more.

When an overlap like this is noticeable to the general public, you’re in trouble. Queen and Bowie sued for copyright infringement. Vanilla Ice defended his song, claiming that he made a change to the bass line that made it different from the original.

The rapper ultimately decided to pay royalties to Queen and Bowie rather than attempting to bring his brilliant defense in front of a jury. Bowie and the members of Queen were also all granted a songwriting credit on “Ice Ice Baby.”

Visual Arts

Copyright Infringement

Like infringement with music, copyright infringement with visual arts can also be tricky. Ideas for a work of art can spring from literally anywhere, such as with a greeting card or a photo.

Rogers vs. Koons

Jeff Koons is a controversial artist who is regularly referenced in pop culture. You may be familiar with some of his work. He ran into trouble, however, when he made some sculptures based on a photograph of a couple holding puppies. Koons had found the reference for his work on a greeting card he came across, and ended up selling several of the sculptures.

The original photographer, Art Rogers, sued Koons for copyright infringement. Koons’ defended the work by claiming fair use by parody.

Unfortunately for Koons, the court decided in Rogers’ favor. The similarities between the two works were too obvious, and Koons was made to pay a settlement to Rogers.

The Associated Press vs. Fairey

If you were alive during 2008, it’s likely that you saw the campaign poster that Shephard Fairey, a hugely popular street artist, made for Barack Obama’s presidential run. While the image was actually independent of the official campaign, the artwork quickly became an omnipresent symbol.

In 2009, however, the Associated Press demanded compensation for Fairey’s use of the image. The picture of Obama had originally been a photograph taken by Mannie Garcia, a freelance AP photographer. Fairey attempted to defend his work through the fair use argument, asserting that the value of the original photograph was not reduced by his work.

By 2011, the two parties had reached a private settlement, including a division of the profits of the piece.


Copyright Infringement

If you’re like me, you were taught not to plagiarize by just about every literature teacher you had in school. Most authors won’t hesitate to take action to defend their intellectual property, which leads to some pretty interesting lawsuits.


JD Salinger is perhaps one of the most famous American novelists of all time. His popularity stems largely from his coming-of-age classic, Catcher in the Rye, as well as his notoriously reclusive lifestyle before his death in 2010.

He refused to stay silent, however, when he heard of a “sequel” to Catcher in the Rye in the works. The follow up, titled 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, is centered around a 76-year-old character called Mr C.

The author, named Fredrik Colting and writing under the pseudonym John David “JD” California, openly pulled from Salinger’s original, even dedicating the book to Salinger himself.

Unfortunately for him, Salinger was not flattered, and chose to sue the author, publisher, and distributor to prevent them from publishing the book. Colting’s lawyers attempted to defend the work by arguing that it engaged in parody.

The judge didn’t buy it.

Colting attempted to appeal. Finally, in 2011, Colting and the Salinger Estate (Salinger passed away in the midst of the ongoing legal dispute) reached an agreement. Colting could not publish his work in North America until Catcher in the Rye became public domain.

J.K. Rowling

The British author J.K. Rowling, of Harry Potter fame, brought a lawsuit against the American publisher RDR Books. The author was hoping to halt the publication of The Harry Potter Lexicon.

Rowling and her lawyers argued that the Lexicon’s publication would act as a “carte blanche” to those who would like to capitalize on Rowling’s original works.

RDR Books attempted to defend the case by asserting that the text acted as a reference book. The judge, however, felt that the Lexicon pulled too substantially from Rowling’s original.  Rowling and Warner Bros. Entertainment’s were awarded $6,750 and the book’s publication was blocked.


Copyright Infringement

These are just a few famous copyright infringement cases, but there are many many more we could go over. Luckily, cases like these are fairly easy to avoid. Be careful about citing sources and getting proper permission from copyright owners before you publish your work. That way you shouldn’t have to face the possibility of enormous legal fees and costly settlements.

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