50 Cent, Dr. Dre, Ed Sheeran, Led Zeppelin… Are These Copyright Lawsuits a Good Thing for Music?

On June 17, TMZ broke the story of Brandon Parrott, the producer who helped craft 50 Cent’s breakout 2003 hit “P.I.M.P.” and is now suing both 50 and the record’s producer, Dr Dre. Parrott says he sent 10 tracks to Dre in 2001, hopeful that Dre might use one of the tracks for his Aftermath Entertainment artists, such as 50 or Eminem. One of the tracks was indeed used, and while he wasn’t informed before the song was released, Parrott says he got a call from an Aftermath producer admitting his song “BAMBA” was used in “P.I.M.P.,” and it was an oversight that he wasn’t credited. The situation was settled amicably. Parrott claims he is now suing because of interviews in which Dre & 50 intimated that the omission of a writing credit was not just an oversight, and that they attempted to willfully exploit Parrott’s work.

Now, that Parrott’s track was used in “P.I.M.P.” is not in question; rather, the good faith under which the initial settlement was negotiated is being disputed. In fact, in mirrors a similar agreement between The Verve and the Rolling Stones, in which the band agreed to license a five-note segment of a Stones cover, but later sued because they thought The Verve used a larger section of the song. But it’s impossible to ignore the legal climate in which the new suit is being brought forth. There is a rich history of copyright holders using lawsuits to win judgements over similar chord progressions and melodic similarity — or even a perceived violation of a pre-existing agreement. But post “Blurred Lines,” music copyright holders smell blood in the water, and any musical similarities or discrepancies in legal agreements are valid as a ticket to the lawsuit lottery.

Let’s look at a few recent examples. Skrillex and Justin Bieber are being sued by an independent artist that claims the pair ripped off her song for the hook on their smash hit “Sorry.” Skrillex tweeted a video that showed exactly how they put the song together, but his Jack Ü collaborator Diplo later admitted on camera that the songs are similar, and that they might have to settle the lawsuit.

An X-Factor winner is suing Ed Sheeran for $20m, claiming Sheeran’s song “Photograph” rips off his composition for “Amazing,” even going so far as to provide sheet music and a demonstrated percentage of shared notes.

On June 14, a trial began for a lawsuit filed by the estate of a member of the band Spirit, who claim that Led Zeppelin classic “Stairway to Heaven” infringes upon Spirit’s song “Taurus.” Led Zeppelin is no stranger to such litigation — they’ve famously settled suits from the legendary bluesmen they ripped off in the ’70s.

It’s gotten so testy that songwriters are forking over publishing rights and royalties preemptively. When Tom Petty questioned the similarities of Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” and his song “I Won’t Back Down,” Smith’s camp never let it get to court — despite claims they had never heard his song and it “was a complete coincidence,” they gave Petty and co-writer Jeff Lynne songwriting credits and a cut of the royalties.

Now, if Parrott’s claims are true, it’s not that surprising; producers steal beats (or have uncredited “ghost producers”) all the time, and for cash-poor independent artists, there is often little recourse. And maybe he should win — superstars’ exploitation of desperate up-and-coming artists is despicable and all too common. But with the scary precedent set by the “Blurred Lines” decision, the floodgates have been thrown wide open, and each subsequent case will further codify the legal precedent around copyright infringement.

Sometimes, it’s easy to forget that there are only 12 notes used in Western music, and while there are many different combinations, only a few actually sound pleasing to the ear. So is it any wonder that we use the same chords over and over? Can any musician actually lay claim to a chord progression? And what does it mean for the future of music if artists are scared to look to other music for inspiration?