In the music world, sampling has become a big part of the everyday practices for musicians. As an artist, if you seek out the correct permissions then by all means, “party on Garth.” Yet, should you fall short on getting approval, well then you end up like so many of these artists we know so well. Artists like Vanilla Ice who found himself under pressure
after his “borrowing” of a Queen and Bowie song. Even as you read this, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams find themselves in a lawsuit against the Marvin Gaye estate for their song “Blurred Lines.” It’s common to watch musicians lose big chunks of their ownership of a song due to copyright infringement. Yet I don’t think any case has ever been more confusing, and carried more blurred lines
than the case of The Verve, and their song “Bitter Sweet Symphony.”
Before we dive into this case, let me first explain the process of copyrighting a song. There are two types of copyrighting when it comes to music. A person copyrights the song itself and they own the lyrics and melody of the song. Permission is required to play their music or use their rhythm in your own song. The second type of copyright is the sound copyright. That is the ownership of the sound recording of a song. If someone wanted to use an artist’s exact recording they would need to hunt down the owner of the recording. This is a common occurrence when rappers sample classic rock songs. For most music, these two different pieces are owned by the same person. Sometimes, however, things can get a bit complicated. Knowing that, let’s jump back into the Verve’s case by following a timeline of events.
[caption id="attachment_1240" align="alignright" width="246"]
The Rolling Stones performing in 2006[/caption]
[/ezcol_1third] [ezcol_2third_end]In 1965, The Rolling Stones released a single called “The Last Time.” The copyrights to this song, like all of the Rolling Stones songs of the 1960s, are owned by Allen Klein. Klein is a notorious figure in the music industry as an agent, manager, and label exec. He acquired sole ownership of the Rolling Stones music written before 1970 controversially while he was their manager. Following this song, in 1966, the Andrew Oldham Orchestra recorded an album called “The Rolling Stones Songbook.” On this album was a number of Stones’ songs done in symphony form, including “The Last Time.” They must have clearly gotten permission from Klein to make this album.[/ezcol_2third_end]
So now let’s leap ahead a number of years to 1997. The Verve, a pretty unknown British rock band, is putting together their third studio album. Front man Richard Ashcroft had an idea for a song where he wanted to use part of the symphony version of the song “The Last Time.” Ashcroft goes through the proper channels to obtain a license to use a five note sample in exchange for a 50/50 split of the song. “Bitter Sweet Symphony” was created. The song was a big hit in the UK but had a slow start in the US. However, momentum grew and the song eventually reached number 12 on the Billboards and was nominated for a Grammy for best rock song. Along with the major success came major trouble for the Verve.
Once the song reached the height of its success, Allen Klein appeared with lawyers by his side. Klein claimed that the band had broken their contract agreement and used more of his song than was originally agreed upon, claiming that the melody of the lyrics were the same as well as other parts of the song. He threatened the band saying that they must turn over all rights of the song or take it off their album completely. The band was hesitant but eventually gave up 100% ownership of the writing copyright of the “Bitter Sweet Symphony” to Klein. Then almost out of nowhere a second lawsuit came in. Andrew Oldham, who owned the sound recording rights to the song that the Verve sampled, sued as they were accused of sampling more than they should have.
Losing the rights to “Bitter Sweet Symphony’s” recording as well, the band was left with nothing. During the Grammy’s the song was credited to Keith Richards and Mick Jagger of The Rolling Stones. It wasn’t too long after that the band broke up completely, never being able to match the success of that song. Still with that all being said, it really is a great song; being sampled and covered all the time. I’m sure whenever Richard Ashcroft hears it played, for him, its bitter sweet.