21 Famous Copyright Infringement Cases That Will Make You Cringe

In the creative space where innovation intersects with legal boundaries, the clash between copyright law and the First Amendment gets tricky, giving rise to complex challenges and high-profile cases. The balance between protecting intellectual property and allowing free expression tests the limits of these legal frameworks.

Let’s dive into 21 prominent copyright cases that show how this tug-of-war between creativity, inspiration, and protecting original work plays out. Let’s check out these real-life stories where the lines between copyright and free expression get blurry.

  • High-profile cases significantly impact how artists approach creativity while respecting intellectual property rights, influencing discussions on sampling, inspiration, and the protection of creative works.
  • Cases that are settled out of court, teach us that copyright cases can be unpredictable.
  • Creators should take precautions to avoid unintentional similarities by conducting thorough research, obtaining permissions, and seeking legal counsel during the creative process.

21 Famous Copyright Infringement Cases To Learn From

Presented below are big and famous copyright infringement cases across diverse industries, including fashion, music, film, and the digital realm.

1. Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams vs. Marvin Gaye’s Heirs (2013)

Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke singing on stage together.

Copyright infringement and the music industry frequently coincide, resulting in numerous high-profile cases. One of the most famous cases is that of Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams vs. Marvin Gaye’s Heirs, centered on their hit song “Blurred Lines,” allegedly infringing Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.”

Claiming similarities in groove and musical structure, Marvin Gaye’s heirs accused Thicke and Williams of copyright infringement. The defendants initially defended themselves by acknowledging inspiration but argued for the originality of their composition.

However, the 2015 jury verdict favored Marvin Gaye’s heirs, leading to substantial damages and setting a precedent in the music industry. This case heightened awareness of the fine line between inspiration and infringement, emphasizing the protection of even the “feel” of a song under copyright law. 

2. Star Wars vs. Battlestar Galactica (1978)

Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars.

The dispute arose over alleged similarities between elements of the two iconic science fiction franchises.

Star Wars, created by George Lucas, claimed that Battlestar Galactica, developed by Glen A. Larson, had infringed upon its copyright. The contention centered around shared themes, characters, and narrative structures.

In response to the claims, Larson and the Battlestar Galactica team argued that while both works explored common science fiction tropes, they were distinct in their storytelling and creative expression. The case eventually concluded with a settlement that involved adjustments to certain elements in Battlestar Galactica to mitigate potential copyright concerns.

This case had a lasting impact on how science fiction franchises approach creativity and intellectual property, emphasizing the need for originality even within a genre.

3. Apple vs. Samsung (2011): The Smartphone Design War Escalates

Apple and Samsung mobile phones.

In 2011, Apple accused Samsung of infringing on its design patents, alleging similarities in the look and feel of their respective smartphones. The dispute primarily revolved around the iconic iPhone design. 

Samsung countered by asserting that certain design elements were industry standards and not exclusive to Apple. The case brought attention to issues like user interface design and the protection of design patents. 

Ultimately, in 2012, the jury sided with Apple, awarding damages to be paid by Samsung for patent infringement. This case significantly affected the smartphone industry, setting precedents for design patent litigation and prompting companies to reevaluate and differentiate their product designs.

4. Christian Louboutin vs. Yves Saint Laurent (2011)

Christian Louboutin and Yves Saint Laurent high heels.

Christian Louboutin, known for its distinctive red-bottomed shoes, filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against Yves Saint Laurent, alleging trademark infringement. The controversy centered on whether Louboutin could exclusively claim the use of a red sole in high-heeled shoes. 

Yves Saint Laurent argued that color should not be subject to trademark protection. The case delved into the complexities of fashion trademarks and the distinctiveness of a single-color mark. 

Ultimately, the court ruled in favor of Christian Louboutin, recognizing the red sole as a valid and distinctive trademark, but with the caveat that the protection only applied when the shoe’s upper contrasted in color. This case left a lasting effect on the fashion industry, shaping discussions around color trademarks and the boundaries of intellectual property protection in the world of haute couture. 

5. Queen and David Bowie vs. Vanilla Ice (1990)

Vanilla Ice, Queen and David Bowie.

In 1990, one of the most notable music copyright cases unfolded involving Queen, David Bowie, and Vanilla Ice, which centered around the hit song “Ice Ice Baby.” The dispute arose from allegations that Vanilla Ice had unlawfully sampled the iconic bassline from Queen and David Bowie’s collaboration, “Under Pressure,” in the creation of his own chart-topping single.

The case highlighted concerns of copyright infringement in music sampling, with Queen and Bowie claiming that Vanilla Ice’s use of the bassline was unauthorized and substantially similar to their original work. In response, Vanilla Ice argued that he had modified the riff sufficiently to avoid infringement.

Ultimately, the case was settled out of court, with Vanilla Ice agreeing to pay an undisclosed sum and provide credit to Queen and David Bowie in subsequent releases of “Ice Ice Baby.” This case emphasized the need for artists to secure proper permissions for sampling and contributing to discussions around the legalities of using elements from existing songs. 

6. Flame vs. Katy Perry (2014)

Katy Perry and Flame.

Flame, whose real name is Marcus Gray, accused Perry of infringing on his 2008 Christian rap song “Joyful Noise.” The lawsuit focused on the alleged similarities in the beats and instrumental elements of the two tracks.

Flame claimed that Perry and her co-creators had copied a distinctive musical phrase from “Joyful Noise.” In response, Katy Perry argued that the elements in question were commonplace in music and not subject to copyright protection.

However, in 2019, the jury sided with Flame, finding Katy Perry and her team liable for copyright infringement. Notably, the landscape shifted when an appeals court overturned the initial ruling, absolving Katy Perry of the $2.8 million payment initially mandated to Marcus Gray.

This case, while initially impacting the music industry and raising awareness about the complexities of musical composition copyright, has undergone a significant transformation with the appeals court’s revised judgment.

7. Harrington vs. Ed Sheeran (2016)

Ed Sheeran and Harrington.

The conflict revolved around Sheeran’s hit song “Photograph” and alleged similarities with the song “Amazing” by Leonard and Harrington. The plaintiff claimed that Sheeran’s song copied the essence of “Amazing,” asserting similarities in melody, harmony, and lyrics.

Ed Sheeran countered by asserting that the elements in question were commonly found in the music industry and did not qualify as copyright infringement. However, in 2017, the parties reached an out-of-court settlement, leading to the case’s dismissal.

The resolution underscored the unpredictability of copyright cases and the potential costs involved. This dispute left a notable impact on the music industry, prompting heightened scrutiny over song similarities and encouraging artists to be vigilant in avoiding potential copyright conflicts. 

8. Zindel Estate vs. Guillermo del Toro (2017): The “Shape of Water”

Guillermo del Toro and Zindel Estate.

In 2017, a significant case arose involving the film “The Shape of Water,” directed by Guillermo del Toro, and the estate of the late playwright Paul Zindel. The Zindel estate alleged that del Toro’s film bore striking similarities to Zindel’s 1969 play “Let Me Hear You Whisper.”

Both works featured a janitor forming a unique bond with a mysterious aquatic creature. The estate claimed that del Toro had plagiarized key elements, including the plot and characters, leading to accusations of copyright infringement.

Guillermo del Toro denied the allegations, asserting that while he admired Zindel’s work, “The Shape of Water” was an original creation with different themes and messages. The case did not proceed to court, and the parties settled privately in 2018. 

9. Louis Vuitton vs. My Other Bag (2016)

My Other Bag and Louis Vuitton tote bags.

The contention centered on My Other Bag’s tote bags featuring cartoonish imitations of famous luxury brand logos, including a play on Louis Vuitton’s monogram. Louis Vuitton filed a lawsuit, alleging trademark infringement and dilution of its brand.

My Other Bag defended its products as parodies, protected under the First Amendment as a form of expressive speech. They argued that the totes were intended to provide a humorous commentary on the high-end fashion industry and were not likely to cause confusion.

The case reached a resolution in 2016, with the court ruling in favor of My Other Bag, emphasizing the satirical nature of the totes and the minimal likelihood of consumer confusion. This case significantly influenced discussions surrounding trademark law, parody, and the balance between artistic expression and the protection of brand identities. 

10. Art Rogers vs. Jeff Koons (1992)

Art Rogers photograph vs Jeff Koons's sculpture of a man and woman with their arms full of puppies.

In 1992, a notable copyright case happened between photographer Art Rogers and contemporary artist Jeff Koons, centering around Koons’ artwork titled “String of Puppies.” The piece featured a series of puppies resembling a porcelain trinket produced by Rogers.

Rogers claimed that Koons had unlawfully copied his photograph and transformed it into a sculpture without permission. The dispute delved into questions of fair use, transformative works, and the boundaries of artistic appropriation.

Jeff Koons defended his creation as a transformative and satirical commentary on kitsch and consumer culture, asserting that it fell under fair use. However, in 1992, the court ruled in favor of Rogers, finding that Koons’ use of the photograph was not transformative enough to be considered fair use. 

11. Metallica vs. Napster (2000)

Napster and Metallica.

Metallica filed a lawsuit against Napster, a file-sharing platform, alleging that they facilitated widespread copyright infringement by allowing users to share their music without proper authorization. The case symbolized the clash between traditional music distribution models and the emerging era of digital file-sharing.

Metallica argued that Napster’s practices were harming artists’ livelihoods and the music industry as a whole. Napster, on the other hand, contended that it was a technology platform and not responsible for the actions of its users.

The case ultimately led to legal action against individual users, adding a layer of complexity to the debate over online music sharing. In 2001, Napster filed for bankruptcy, and while the legal battle left a lasting impact on the music industry’s approach to digital distribution, it also accelerated the shift toward legitimate streaming services. 

12. Naruto and PETA vs. Slater (2011)

Naruto and David Slater.

Naruto and PETA v. Slater, commonly known as “the monkey selfie” case, revolves around a series of legal disputes stemming from a 2011 incident where a macaque monkey named Naruto took a selfie using photographer David Slater’s camera. PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) filed a lawsuit on behalf of Naruto, claiming that the monkey should be recognized as the copyright owner of the selfie and that the rights should be assigned to Naruto.

The case was dismissed by a judge who argued that U.S. copyright law didn’t extend to Naruto since the copyright typically belongs to the individual capturing the image, and Naruto, being a non-human entity, wasn’t eligible. Following PETA’s appeal, a settlement was reached.

In the agreement, David Slater committed to contributing 25% of the photo earnings to organizations dedicated to safeguarding macaques in Indonesia. 

13. Tom Petty vs. Sam Smith (2015)

Tom Petty and Sam Smith.

The case revolved around Smith’s hit song “Stay with Me” and alleged similarities to Tom Petty’s song “I Won’t Back Down.” Critics and listeners noted resemblances in the melodies of the two tracks, leading to accusations of copyright infringement.

The dispute brought attention to the issues surrounding unintentional similarities in musical compositions. Sam Smith acknowledged the resemblance and reached an out-of-court settlement with Tom Petty’s estate, leading to Petty and Jeff Lynne being credited as co-writers of “Stay with Me.”

This case had a significant impression on the music industry, highlighting the importance of acknowledging influences and obtaining proper permissions to avoid copyright disputes. 

14. Ed Sheeran vs. Marvin Gaye Estate (2016)

Ed Sheeran and Marvin Gaye Estate.

The controversy centered around Sheeran’s hit song “Thinking Out Loud” and supposed similarities to Marvin Gaye’s classic “Let’s Get It On.” Critics and music enthusiasts pointed out resemblances in the melodic structure and harmonic elements, leading to accusations of copyright infringement.

Ed Sheeran defended his song, claiming that any similarities were coincidental and that he drew inspiration from various sources. The case did not proceed to court, and in 2017, Sheeran reached an undisclosed settlement with the Marvin Gaye estate.

This dispute prompted discussions about the subjective nature of musical similarity and the challenges in defining originality. 

15. Associated Press vs. Shepard Fairey (2009): Obama’s “HOPE” Poster

Photograph and poster artwork of Barack Obama.

In 2009, a significant legal battle unfolded between news agency Associated Press (AP) and street artist Shepard Fairey over Fairey’s iconic “HOPE” poster featuring Barack Obama during his presidential campaign. The case centered on Fairey’s unauthorized use of an AP photograph as the basis for the poster, raising questions about artistic attribution and fair use.

Fairey argued that his work was transformative and protected by fair use, emphasizing its social and political commentary. However, as the case progressed, it was revealed that Fairey had submitted false evidence and concealed the true source of the image.

In 2011, Fairey pleaded guilty to criminal contempt of court for fabricating evidence. The legal clash highlighted the complexities of fair use in the realm of political art and the ethical responsibilities of artists in providing accurate information about their sources. 

16. Napster vs. The Music Industry (1999-2001)

Napster logo with phonograph record that represents The Music Industry.

Napster, created by Shawn Fanning, allowed users to share and download music files freely, sparking a revolution in digital music distribution. However, this also led to a surge in copyright infringement concerns raised by major record labels and artists.

In 2000, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) filed a lawsuit against Napster, claiming that the platform facilitated mass copyright violations by enabling users to share copyrighted music without authorization. The case delved into the challenges posed by emerging digital technologies to traditional copyright models.

In 2001, Napster was ordered to cease its file-sharing operations, marking a significant legal victory for the music industry. The case marked a turning point in the music business, fueling debates on the impact of digital sharing on copyright protection, artists’ rights, and the industry’s need to adapt to evolving technological landscapes. 

17. Apple vs. Microsoft (1988-1997)

Apple and Microsoft logo.

The legal conflict between tech giants Apple Inc. and Microsoft unfolded over several years, primarily during the late 1980s and into the 1990s. This centered on allegations that Microsoft had copied elements of Apple’s graphical user interface (GUI) for its own operating system, Windows.

Apple filed a lawsuit in 1988, claiming copyright infringement and the “look and feel” similarities between Windows and its Macintosh operating system. The case sparked debates on intellectual property in the software industry and the extent to which GUI elements could be protected under copyright law.

In 1997, the two companies reached a settlement where Microsoft invested in Apple and agreed to continue developing Microsoft Office for Macintosh. The legal clash influenced discussions on software innovation, intellectual property rights, and the competitive dynamics between major players in the tech industry. 

18. “Playas Gon’ Play” Writers vs. Taylor Swift (2017)

Taylor Swift and Playas Gon' Play.

In 2017, a legal disagreement emerged between Taylor Swift and the composers of the 2001 3LW song “Playas Gon’ Play,” Sean Hall and Nathan Butler. The controversy revolved around the lyrics of Swift’s hit song “Shake It Off,” with Hall and Butler alleging that Swift had copied phrases from their earlier work.

The lyrics in question were “players gonna play” and “haters gonna hate,” which were present in both songs. Swift argued that these phrases were too commonplace and lacked originality, falling into the public domain. The case raised questions about the threshold for originality in lyrics and the extent to which short phrases could be protected under copyright.

However, in 2018, a judge dismissed the lawsuit, stating that the phrases were too basic to warrant copyright protection. 

19: Lana del Rey vs. Radiohead (2018)

Lana del Rey and Thom Yorke of Radiohead.

In 2018, Lana Del Rey and the band Radiohead had a copyright infringement dispute that centered around Del Rey’s song “Get Free” and Radiohead’s earlier hit “Creep.” Del Rey acknowledged similarities between the two tracks and stated that Radiohead was seeking legal action for alleged copyright infringement.

The case focused on melodic elements, with Radiohead claiming that “Get Free” shared similarities with the chord progression of “Creep.” Lana Del Rey asserted that any resemblances were unintentional and offered to credit Radiohead in her album.

In the end, the dispute was reportedly settled out of court, with Lana Del Rey confirming that she was allowed to keep “Get Free” on her album without further financial obligations to Radiohead. This case prompted discussions on the complexities of music copyright, unintentional similarities, and the potential for out-of-court resolutions in the music industry. 

20. Art Buchwald vs. Paramount (1988)

Fatal Subtraction poster featuring Art Buchwald and Eddie Murphy.

In 1988, a legal battle developed between humorist Art Buchwald and Paramount Pictures over the film “Coming to America,” starring Eddie Murphy. The argument revolved around Buchwald’s claim that the film’s script was based on an idea he had pitched to Paramount.

Buchwald filed a lawsuit, alleging a breach of contract and seeking a share of the profits from the successful movie. Paramount argued that the film was an original work and that any similarities were coincidental.

The case went to trial, and in 1990, the court ruled in favor of Buchwald, determining that Paramount had, indeed, breached the agreement. The ruling highlighted the importance of honoring contractual obligations and fairly compensating creators for their contributions.

The case settled for an undisclosed sum, emphasizing the need for Hollywood studios to respect the intellectual property rights of writers and creators.

21. Viacom vs. YouTube (2007-2010)

YouTube and Viacom logo.

Viacom filed a lawsuit against YouTube, claiming that the platform allowed users to upload and share copyrighted Viacom content without authorization. The case raised questions about the responsibilities of online platforms in checking copyright infringement and the application of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

YouTube argued that it was protected by the DMCA’s safe harbor provisions, which shield online service providers from liability for user-uploaded content if they promptly remove infringing material upon notification. In 2010, the court ruled in favor of YouTube, emphasizing the platform’s compliance with the DMCA and that YouTube had no way of constantly pre-screening user-generated content.

The case set legal precedents for the responsibilities of online platforms in addressing copyright infringement issues, and the judge ultimately sided with YouTube, contributing to discussions on the balance between protecting intellectual property and encouraging online innovation.

Frequently Asked Questions

How can you handle the fine line between inspiration and copyright infringement in your creative work?

Be mindful of the source of inspiration and strive to create original content that goes beyond mere replication. Understand the principles of fair use and seek legal advice if unsure about potential infringement.

What impact have high-profile copyright cases had on how artists approach creativity?

High-profile cases have raised awareness about the need to secure permissions from the copyright holder for sampling, inspired careful consideration of influences, and emphasized the importance of respecting intellectual property rights while encouraging creativity.

Can you provide examples of successful defenses against copyright infringement claims in the creative industries?

Defenses often involve showcasing the originality of the accused work, proving that similarities are coincidental, or highlighting elements protected by fair use. Successful defenses require a thorough understanding of copyright law.

What are the implications for creators regarding digital copyright infringement and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA)?

Creators should be vigilant about protecting their work online, understand DMCA provisions, and promptly address any unauthorized use. Online platforms play a significant role in both exposure and potential infringement, making proactive protection essential.

What precautions can you take to protect your work against copyright infringement, especially in the age of digital sharing?

Utilize watermarking, licensing agreements, and digital rights management tools to monitor and protect your creative content online. Regularly monitor platforms for unauthorized use and be prepared to take legal action if needed.

Rae Marie Manar
Rae Marie Manar is a licensed lawyer with a Juris Doctor degree, specializing in copyright, data privacy, and intellectual law. With a wealth of education and expertise, she aids clients in going through the intricacies of these laws, guiding them through the legalities, processes, and requirements tailored to their personal and business needs.