Famous copyright cases
14th August 2015
With the recent news that Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke were ruled to have breached copyright rules with their Blurred Lines song, we delve through history and find the most infamous copyright cases.
To begin with copyright cases are rarely clear-cut, and arguments over copyright occur more often than you might think. Funnily enough, there are many blurred lines when it comes to deciding if a person or business has broken copyright rules.
Before we start our list of some of the most famous copyright cases we need to define what copyright is.
A copyright is a legal protection that gives the originator the exclusive and assignable legal right to the print, publish, performance, film, record literacy, artistic or musical material they have created for a fixed number of years. Other people can use something that is copyrighted so long as they get permission from the owner of the copyright and attribute the person(s) that own it.
Not all copyright cases make the headlines like the case involving Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, but here we take you through some of the ones that did and are seen as the most infamous copyright cases.
Star Wars vs Battlestar Galactica
Lawyers that work in copyright as part of their in-house legal job have probably either used this as an example whilst studying to become a lawyer at university, or have at least been told about it as it is regarded by many as the most notorious case of copyright.
Battlestar Galactica was made following the huge success of the 1977 film Star Wars and soon after Twentieth Century Fox, who were the creators of Star Wars, commenced legal action against Universal Studios, who were behind Battlestar Galactica, for copyright infringement. Famous sci-fi author Jerry Pournelle, when speaking to This Week in Tech said 34 ideas had been taken from Star Wars, including a character called Skyler, which was similar to Star Wars’ Skywalker.
This was not taken well by Universal Studios and they in fact countersued, saying Star Wars had stolen ideas from the 1972 film Silent Running and the Buck Rogers serials of the 1940s.
Two years later, the case was decided in favour of Battlestar Galactica, but by this time the original Battlestar Galactica had been cancelled and the new Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back was due to be screened.
Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke vs Marvin Gaye’s family
Just this March, the TV was awash with news that a jury had awarded Marvin Gaye’s children $7.4 million after agreeing singers Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams had copied Marvin Gaye’s music when making Blurred Lines.
An article on the Guardian reported that the Gayes’ lawyer told the court that Williams and Thicke were liars and despite Williams’ claims they tried to emulate the R&B legend’s music, that they had copied Marvin Gaye’s hit Got to Give It Up.
Vanilla Ice vs David Bowie and Freddie Mercury
Sticking with copyright cases in music, in 1991 Vanilla Ice released the huge hit Ice, Ice Baby, but despite sampling Under Pressure by David Bowie and Queen, he did not credit the song.
Vanilla Ice initially denied the claim, but later retracted the statement and the case was settled outside of court.
Apple vs Microsoft
This epic copyright battle surrounded the graphical user interface and who invented it.
Despite Microsoft playing a part in developing the Macintosh, Apple had refused Microsoft to use their software, which was ignored by Bill Gates, who carried on with the project and added in Microsoft’s own features in early prototypes of the Macintosh.
When Apple realised this they did not take out a lawsuit and rather agreed to licence the Mac’s visual displays. This, however, was not the case when Windows 2.0 was released, which was almost identical. Apple believed Microsoft had breached their contract as it was initially agreed that the software would only be used for the 1.0 version.
Apple then filed a lawsuit against Microsoft in 1988 and so began a six-year legal battle. In 1989 the court ruled that 179 of the entire 189 displays that were disputed were covered by the existing licence, and that the remaining 10 were not in violation of Apple’s copyright. Eventually Microsoft won the case in August 1993.
Associated Press vs Shepard Fairey
Another modern case that most lawyers will be familiar with is the copyright case involving the Obama Hope poster.
The image of President Obama was used during the 2008 presidential election after seemingly being created by artist Shepard Fairey, but the Associated Press claimed that the artist created the image by stencilling an Associated Press photo of Barack Obama, which he did not license.
Fairey filed a law suit against the Associated Press by stating the poster was designed on another photo, although this claim was then changed as Fairey had mistakenly used an Associated Press photo.
A settlement was reached out of court, although the artist was later sentenced with 300 hours of community service and was fined as it was discovered he had destroyed documents when the lawsuit was taking place.