David Byrne celebrated a legal victory this week against former Florida governor Charlie Crist, who used Byrne's song Road To Nowhere in a campaign last year without permission. Along with pocketing an undisclosed sum of cash, Byrne's victory led to Crist releasing a stammering, videotaped apology.
As odd as this story seems, it's easily one of the tamest examples of a music industry lawsuit. When music disputes end up in court, things usually get more ridiculous than a wimpy governor making amends on YouTube.
We run down a few of our favorite cases from over the years.
5. The Beastie Boys versus Some Bitter Jazz Guy
In 2002, jazz flutist James Newton sued the Beastie Boys for using three notes from his composition “Choir” in their song “Pass the Mic.” Although the Beasties paid Newton's record label for the sample, Newton argued that he deserved songwriting credit and a boatload of royalties, too.
What was this hit-making and miraculous sample, you ask?
You know that flute riff during the millisecond pause right before Pass the Mic's last break beat? It sounds something like this: “Nee-wee.”
Do you remember that contribution to popular music, so significant that it turned millions of kids onto the flute and sparked a worldwide flute renaissance?
We don't either. The judge was similarly unmoved, ruling that Newton would have to live with his original payment of a thousand bucks and a lifetime of ignominy as the guy who sued Mike D.
4. Thomas Dolby versus K-Fed
In 2005, Thomas Dolby sued would-be rapper Kevin Federline for sampling his hit, “She Blinded Me with Science.”
Although Federline would later admit that he borrowed elements of Dolby's work without permission, we were surprised that Dolby bothered with a lawsuit in the first place. He and K-Fed have so much in common they could have easily resolved their beef outside of court.
K-Fed's music features him repeating a vapid catchphrase through auto tune (“Popozão”) while Dolby's big hit featured him repeating his own vapid catchphrase through a Vocoder (“She blinded me…with science!”). Both men spend a lot of time on VH1, with Federline appearing on Celebrity Fit Club and Dolby's video popping up on all those irritating Best of the 80s shows.
Both men also fraternize with a marginalized subculture that the public despises — K-Fed with back-up dancers, and Dolby with Silicon Valley venture capitalists.
Rather than lawyer up, these two should have held a poolside beer summit at K-Fed's pad and embarked on a musical collaboration. A nice “friends with benefits” situation could have emerged. In exchange for producing his new record, K-Fed could have introduced tech dweeb Dolby to some real-life, non-webcam girls.
3. John Fogerty vs. John Fogerty
Back in the 1960s, record executives were so impressed by Creedence Clearwater Revival that they cloned bandleader John Fogerty, allowing the original Fogerty to tour the world and the clone Fogerty to stay in the studio and crank out more hits. Decades later, Fogerty's clone, angry that he never got any songwriting credit, filed suit.
Actually, that story would be more plausible than the real one behind the 1994 lawsuit Fantasy vs. Fogerty, in which Fogerty was sued for “self-plagiarism” by his old label, Fantasy Records.
The suit came about because Fantasy honchos believed that a song on one of Fogerty's solo albums sounded suspiciously like an old tune that he did with Creedence. Since Fantasy owns the rights to the old Creedence records, they sued Fogerty using the wormhole-creating logic that he had ripped them off by sounding too much like himself.
If you want to follow this asinine argument further into outer space, Fogerty is theoretically open to an infinite number of plagiarism suits from his past record label, because the same influences that shaped Fogerty as a young man probably continue to shape his output today (unless he's using his golden years to experiment with doom metal).
The courts ruled in Fogerty's favor, and we applaud them. If any musician deserves to be sued for being derivative, we can think of more deserving candidates, like these guys and these guys and even these guys.
Not to mention these guys.
2. Coldplay versus “The Satch”
In 2008, guitarist Joe “Satch” Satriani sued Coldplay, alleging their song “Viva La Vida” is a rip-off of his tune “If I Could Fly.”
Satriani, a gifted yet tacky instrumentalist with a fan base of music majors and astronomy geeks, made a big stink in the press at the time about how Coldplay songwriter Chris Martin and his chums are a bunch of lowdown copycats.
We agree. Chris Martin and his band mates borrow plenty of ideas, but they usually have the good sense to siphon their gas from Radiohead's tank.
Since we don't have advanced degrees in musicology, we're not going to speculate on whether Satriani's claim had any merit. What made the lawsuit ridiculous is the notion that a band of maudlin, fashion-conscious Brits would ever listen to a hesher showboat like Satriani, even for shits and giggles, let alone inspiration.
1. Slipknot versus Burger King
The lawsuit initially had tragic undertones, because if any two entities should ever join forces, they are Slipknot and Burger King. After all, both band and restaurant feature a menu of tasteless offerings and tirelessly promote an unhealthy, short-sighted lifestyle to their customers.
Slipknot's songs could even be called the sonic equivalent of BK onion rings, thanks to the abrasion they cause going down, the turmoil they create during digestion, and the fetid aftertaste they leave behind for days.
The similarities don't end there. The guys in Slipknot, who wear cheesy horror masks and costumes onstage, even bear a startling physical resemblance to the creepy BK mascot.
Rather than take a joke, the dudes in Slipknot tried to take an imaginary high road.
The following line, excerpted from their complaint, makes their lawsuit not only the most ridiculous one in the annals of the music industry, but perhaps all of U.S. legal history:
“Burger King…chose to create a look-alike and sound alike band in order to influence the Slipknot generation to purchase Chicken Fries.”