Nine Hit Songs That Ripped Off Other Songs

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Not to toot my own horn, but I'm proud that I'm able to write, direct, edit and shoot a film as well as do graphic design, illustration, animation and other forms of creative writing. I am not, however, a renaissance man, as I don't have a musical bone in my body. I cannot play an instrument, and if I ever tried to compose a song or even a simple melody, I'd likely just copy something already done. But as the following list will show, it happens to the best of them. (Thanks to Peter Stubbs for some good suggestions.)

  1. "My Sweet Lord"/"He's So Fine". George Harrison's best-known post-Beatles song, "My Sweet Lord" has an uncanny similarity to the Chiffons hit of seven years earlier. Bright Tunes, the company that owned the rights to "He's So Fine", noticed this too. Thus began rock's most famous plagiarism suit. It's a long, long story, but ultimately Harrison lost the suit when he admitted that he was familiar with the Chiffons song even though he did not mean to steal its melody. In a final irony, however, Harrison wound up purchasing Bright Tunes, thus receiving royalties from both "My Sweet Lord" and the song that inadvertently inspired it.
  2. "Surfin' U.S.A."/"Sweet Little Sixteen". Beach Boys frontman Brian Wilson wrote this paean to surfing in 1963, five years after Chuck Berry's paean to underage girls. Wilson denied that he ripped off Berry's song (even though it's obviously the same tune), but his manager father Murry Wilson handed over the copyright to Berry when Berry complained. So now Chuck Berry receives royalties from "Surfin' U.S.A." as both composer and lyricist, even though the lyrics were Brian Wilson's.
  3. "Let's Live for Today"/"I Count the Tears". The chorus to the Summer of Love anthem by The Grass Roots has the same melody as The Drifters' 1961 single "I Count the Tears". To complicate things further, "Let's Live for Today" was a legal remake of the 1965 Italian hit "Piangi Con Me" – recorded four years after the Drifters hit. Doc Pomus, who wrote the original tune and chorus, never pursued legal action.
  4. "What Child Is This?"/"Greensleeves". When William Chatterton Dix wrote the famous Christmas carol in 1865, he didn't have to worry about copyright infringement, as "Greensleeves", the tune he used, was anonymously composed sometime before 1580, and long before copyright laws existed.
  5. "My Country, 'Tis of Thee"/"God Save the King (or Queen)". The irony is lost on no one that Samuel Francis Smith wrote the informal national anthem of the United States (until "The Star-Spangled Banner" was officially adopted) based on the melody of Great Britain's national anthem – less than fifty years after the Revolutionary War.
  6. "The Star-Spangled Banner"/"To Anacreon in Heaven". And what of our current national anthem? Francis Scott Key wrote the poem in 1814; days later, his brother-in-law noticed that it fit the tune of the drinking song beloved by London's Anacreontic Society (a private gentlemen's club) and had it published anonymously. Once again, an American anthem was stolen from the Brits – and drunken Brits, at that.
  7. "Love Me Tender"/"Aura Lee". One of Elvis Presley's biggest hits, this was recorded in 1956, nearly a century after the Civil War ballad "Aura Lee" was composed by one George R. Poulton. Presumably, Poulton's estate had no recourse to copyright laws, so Elvis never shared his songwriting credit. (The "Love Me Tender" lyrics were written by Ken Darby.)
  8. "It's Now or Never"/"'O Sole Mio". The King steals again, this time from the song often associated with Venetian gondoliers, although "'O Sole Mio" originated in Naples – and as any Italian can tell you, the title does not translate as "Oh Lonely Me" but as "O My Sun". An earlier non-Presley song called "There's No Tomorrow" also borrowed the melody, written in 1898 and apparently predating international copyright laws.
  9. "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"/"Mbube". It's a heartbreaking story, one that played out over the course of decades, in which black South African songwriter Solomon Linda recorded "Mbube" ("Lion") in 1939 for a small fee and no royalties. It was a smash in his home country and became a folk hit (as "Wimoweh") for American singer Pete Seeger, who never knew the true author and paid out his royalties to a crook named Howard Richmond, who claimed songwriter credit. In 1961, The Tokens released their version of the song, called "The Lion Sleeps Tonight", and someone wound up making millions – though it wasn't Solomon Linda, who died in poverty in 1962. The theft came to light in a 2000 Rolling Stone article, and ultimately Linda's heirs got to reap the profits that Linda himself never lived to see.