Songs Accused of Plagiarism That Hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100

Whether by coincidence, osmosis, common ancestry or, you know, theft, there are plenty of hit songs that sound strangely similar to pre-existing material… or do they? Enter the lawsuit. While some artists and songwriters shrug off similarities, others take it to court, demanding what they perceive is their due when it comes to alleged copyright infringement.

Of course, music history – especially when it comes to pre-recorded music – is rife with songs that were inspired by (or wholesale stolen from) previous material. Early rock n’ roll songs frequently lifted riffs, lyrics and chords from classic blues and country songs, which themselves were often based on folk tunes, African-American spirituals and work songs, nursery rhymes and even melodies from classical compositions. If you could time travel and track the authorship of songs as simple as “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” or “Yankee Doodle,” the list of co-writers for each would probably run north of two dozen by modern standards of crediting songwriters for their contributions.

As recorded music became big business over the 20th century (and new technology made it easier to track song authorship and a writer’s exposure to previous material), copyright lawsuits became a regular occurrence in the music industry. But the litigation really took off in the 2010s, after a landmark lawsuit between the estate of Marvin Gaye and Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams over “Blurred Lines” made things a bit more muddled (or blurred, if you will).

In the aftermath of the “Blurred Lines” case, many songwriters opted to credit scribes whose copyrighted material bore even a passing resemblance to theirs, assuming it was easier to give credit than deal with a protracted, expensive lawsuit. But more recently, many artists have started to fight back, fearing that settling with accusers was leading to more unjustified lawsuits. Led Zeppelin, Katy Perry and Ed Sheeran have all won high-profile victories in recent years, defeating copyright cases by arguing that basic musical building blocks must be free for everyone to use.

It’s worth mentioning that technically, plagiarism (taking someone else’s efforts and presenting it as your own original work) is not illegal in the United States. If a dispute over a song reaches the courts, it’s over copyright infringement, not plagiarism, so the arguments over these songs are about whether someone ran afoul of copyright law. (Although most people tsk-tsk plagiarists, too.)

The songs on this list share two things in common: They topped the Billboard Hot 100, and some people believe they lifted elements from a previously existing song. Inclusion on this list doesn’t imply wrongdoing. Several of these disagreements settled out of court; one was settled without any lawsuit being filed; and one artist handily won their case against the accuser.

Read on to see how the rest of the songs fared.

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