/ Borrowed or Stolen? A Look at Famous Plagiarism Cases

Borrowed or Stolen? A Look at Famous Plagiarism Cases

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Manish Jindal

March 27, 2024


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Borrowed or Stolen? A Look at Famous Plagiarism Cases

Key Takeaways:

  • Plagiarism is serious and can happen to anyone, from musicians to politicians. It can be intentional or accidental.
  • Some famous examples of plagiarism include musicians like George Harrison and writers like Helen Keller.
  • Plagiarism can have severe consequences, such as damaged reputations, legal battles, and financial settlements.
  • To avoid plagiarism, it’s important to understand what it is, paraphrase correctly, cite sources properly, and use plagiarism checkers.
  • Even if unintentional, plagiarism is still wrong because it fails to credit the original creator’s work.

Plagiarism can happen anywhere, from classrooms to concert halls. In this article, we’ll delve into the world of famous plagiarism cases.

We’ll explore instances where musicians borrowed a little too heavily, writers passed off someone else’s work as their own, and even politicians got caught with unoriginal speeches.

We’ll also look at historical plagiarism examples and some surprising celebrities who’ve been accused of copying. Get ready for a closer look at these real-life plagiarism examples, from the most popular cases to some you might not have heard of before.

Famous Plagiarism Cases in Music

Plagiarism in music is a serious issue that has plagued the industry for decades. Some of the most famous cases of music plagiarism have resulted in legal battles, damaged reputations, and hefty financial settlements.

Here are some notable cases of plagiarism in the music industry:

George Harrison

The George Harrison plagiarism case remains one of the most prolonged and renowned in American music history. This case, which was extensively litigated over several years, eventually found its resolution in the American judicial system.

It was alleged that George Harrison had plagiarised “He’s So Fine” by The Chiffons in his own track, “My Sweet Lord.” Consequently, on February 10, 1971, Bright Tunes, the entity holding the publishing rights to “He’s So Fine,” initiated a lawsuit against Harrison for plagiarism.

Despite Harrison’s denial of the accusations, the legal dispute dragged on, primarily because the rights holder was adamant about securing 40% of “My Sweet Lord’s” sales revenue as compensation.

Harrison’s main concern shifted from the legal battle itself to how his fans would perceive the situation.

Although Harrison contested the claim that “My Sweet Lord” was a plagiarised work—or, to put it another way, was substantially similar to the song in question—the court eventually ordered him to pay $587,000 in damages on February 19, 1981.

Even after the conclusion of the case and the determination of the settlement amount, Harrison did not harbor any negative feelings or sense of guilt regarding the creation of “My Sweet Lord.”

Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” vs. Killing Joke’s “Eighties”

Killing Joke observed a striking resemblance between the riff of their 1984 song “Eighties” and the riff in Nirvana’s “Come As You Are,” featured on the album “Nevermind” and subsequently released as a single.

Although Killing Joke hinted at legal action, the case never reached the courts, and the issue was ultimately set aside following Kurt Cobain’s death.

Slipknot vs. Burger King

In what could be considered the second most bizarre music copyright dispute, Burger King in 2005 rolled out a new menu item, Chicken Fries, and promoted it with a campaign featuring a make-believe metal band named Coq Roq.

Slipknot, recognised for their members’ distinctive and intimidating mask-wearing image, considered legal action against Burger King, alleging that the advertisement copied Slipknot’s unique style.

The fact that Coq Roq’s members donned chicken masks, which leaned more towards humor than horror, didn’t deter Slipknot’s initial reaction. Ultimately, reason took over, and Slipknot decided against pursuing the lawsuit.

Wire’s “Three Girl Rhumba” vs. Elastica’s “Connection”

Elastica, led by Justine Frischmann, was known for embracing post-punk influences. However, their 1994 hit “Connection” bore a resemblance to Wire’s 1977 track “Three Girl Rhumba” that was too significant to ignore, highlighting a case of musical similarity that caught the attention of listeners and critics alike.

Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams vs. Marvin Gaye

Robin Thicke’s 2012 hit “Blurred Lines,” featuring Pharrell Williams and T.I., not only made headlines for its music video with topless supermodels but also attracted controversy when Marvin Gaye’s family alleged that the song bore a striking resemblance to Gaye’s 1977 classic “Got To Give It Up.”

The dispute led to a two-year legal battle, culminating in a jury awarding nearly £5 million in damages. Thicke and Williams argued that their song was merely inspired by the “feel” of Gaye’s track, but their defense was unsuccessful.

The case sparked concern within the songwriting community about the definition of a composition—whether it pertained to chord progressions or simply a “vibe.” Despite the ruling, copyright law remains unchanged, offering some reassurance to artists and composers worldwide.

Famous Plagiarism Cases in Writers

Plagiarism is a serious offense in the world of writing, and there have been several high-profile cases over the years that have shocked and disappointed readers and writers alike.

Here are some famous plagiarism cases involving original authors or writers:

Helen Keller’s “The Frost King”

At eleven, Helen Keller wrote “The Frost King,” which was later found to be very similar to Margaret Canby’s “Frost Fairies.”

Keller explained that she had unconsciously remembered the story, which had been read to her, and believed she was creating something original.

Dan Brown’s “The Da Vinci Code”

Dan Brown faced multiple lawsuits accusing him of plagiarising various sources for “The Da Vinci Code.”

All lawsuits were dismissed or ruled in Brown’s favor, with courts finding the similarities to be based on general ideas or historical facts that are not copyrightable.

Jacob Epstein’s “Wild Oats”

Jacob Epstein was caught plagiarising from Martin Amis’s “The Rachel Papers” for his novel “Wild Oats.” Amis identified numerous similarities, and Epstein apologised, attributing the plagiarism to unintentional citation errors.

Q.R. Markham’s “Assassin of Secrets”

Quentin Rowan, aka Q.R. Markham, plagiarised numerous sources for his novel “Assassin of Secrets.” The extensive plagiarism spanned his entire literary career, leading to the withdrawal of his works.

The “Lord of the Rings” Series by J.R.R. Tolkien vs. Richard Wagner’s Work

J.K. Rowling isn’t the sole author of a beloved book series to face plagiarism accusations. J.R.R. Tolkien, the mind behind “The Lord of the Rings,” has been charged with borrowing extensively from “Ring of the Nibelung,” an opera by Richard Wagner.

Tolkien refuted these allegations, with many supporters arguing that Wagner’s opera served merely as inspiration for his legendary series.

Famous Plagiarism Cases in Politics

Melania Trump’s Speech Controversy

Melania Trump’s speech became a focal point of controversy for allegedly plagiarising parts of Michelle Obama’s earlier address. During the Republican National Convention, Melania took the stage and delivered a speech to an enthusiastic audience.

However, accusations of plagiarism surfaced immediately after her presentation, spotlighting one of the most notable plagiarism incidents based on the content of her speech.

The Trump team defended Melania, asserting that she used common phrases that anyone might say, denying any plagiarism.

Amidst the controversy, the Trump campaign pointed fingers at Hillary Clinton, suggesting controversy and media bias were at play, especially after a freelance writer pinpointed the plagiarised elements of the speech, causing a viral sensation before any significant coverage from their supporters.

Criticism within Trump’s circle was directed more towards his team rather than Melania herself. The campaign later announced that the speechwriter would face consequences and be dismissed for the oversight, although Michelle Obama did not publicly comment on the matter.

Joe Biden’s Plagiarism Incident

Joe Biden, a prominent figure known for his political career, faced accusations of plagiarism.

He acknowledged that during his first year at Syracuse University College of Law, he had plagiarised a piece of work from another author, attributing the mistake to a lack of malice and a misunderstanding of citation practices.

The issue was addressed at the time, but it resurfaced and became a significant obstacle in his political journey. In 1988, allegations of plagiarism forced him to withdraw from the presidential race.

The controversy escalated to the point where legal proceedings were involved, and Biden had to step down from the campaign. It took 32 years after this incident for Biden to eventually become the President of the United States.

Barack Obama’s Speech Controversy

Barack Obama faced accusations of plagiarism from his competitor, Mrs. Clinton, who alleged that the former president had borrowed phrases from Governor Deval Patrick.

Addressing the accusation, Governor Patrick suggested that the claim stemmed from the competitive nature of seeking votes, labeling it as excessive and inappropriate.

Obama’s 2004 campaign, which resonated with the slogan “Yes We Can,” shared similarities with Patrick’s 2006 campaign theme. In response to the allegations, Clinton remarked, “If your entire candidacy is about words, they should be your own.”

Patrick countered this criticism by emphasising the significance of ideas over the exact words, stating, “That’s not right,” and arguing that great ideas transcend specific phrases, which he described as having become idiomatic.

Ultimately, Patrick highlighted his longstanding close relationship with Obama, spanning nearly 15 years, and suggested that such accusations were not surprising given his own experiences. Obama, for his part, expressed regret over the situation, acknowledging that he should have credited Patrick appropriately for the inspiration.

Kate Osamor’s Speech Similarity Incident

After securing reelection in 2017, UK Labour MP Kate Osamor gave a victory speech that bore a striking resemblance to one delivered by Barack Obama in Chicago following his own electoral success.

The similarity between the two speeches did not go unnoticed by the public, leading to allegations of plagiarism against Osamor.

In an attempt to defend her integrity, Osamor stated that the speech which inspired hers was so well-known it required no formal acknowledgment. Despite her explanation, the public’s dissatisfaction with her response persisted.

John Walsh’s Plagiarism Scandal

John Walsh, who was serving as an appointed senator for Montana, sought to secure a full-term position during the 2014 elections. However, his campaign took an unexpected turn.

The New York Times exposed that Walsh had plagiarised significant portions of his Master’s thesis, revealing that about 75% of the text was copied without proper citation. This was not a matter of a few sentences or paragraphs; it was the majority of his thesis.

As a result of this scandal, Walsh was promptly removed from consideration in the senatorial race.

List of Famous People Accused of Plagiarism Throughout History

Plagiarism has been a part of human history since shortly after the death of Christ and continues to be prevalent in the modern era, fueled by the vast amount of information available online.

Here are 15 notable examples of plagiarism throughout history:

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    Fidentinus (80 AD): Martial, a Roman poet, discovered Fidentinus was reciting his poems as his own, leading Martial to publicly denounce Fidentinus as a “plagiarus” or kidnapper.
  2. Leonardo Da Vinci: Research by Claudio Sgarbi suggested Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man” might be a copy of a drawing by Giacomo Andrea de Ferrera.
  3. William Shakespeare: Anti-plagiarism software found similarities between Shakespeare’s works and George North’s unpublished manuscript “A Brief Discourse of Rebellion.”
  4. Samuel Johnson: Despite defining “plagiarism” in his dictionary, Johnson’s own dictionary borrowed definitions from earlier works.
  5. James Platt, Jr.: Accused of using historical linguistic information without accreditation in Anglo-Saxon studies.
  6. G.D. Birkhoff: Improved upon John von Neumann’s “mean ergodic theorem” and published it as the “pointwise ergodic theorem” without mentioning von Neumann.
  7. Martin Luther King, Jr.: Accused of plagiarizing parts of his doctoral thesis and his “I Have a Dream” speech bearing resemblance to Archibald Carey, Jr.’s speech.
  8. Janet Dailey: Admitted to plagiarizing Nora Roberts, describing it as “mind rape.”
  9. Dan Brown: Faced accusations of plagiarism in “The Da Vinci Code” from various sources.
  10. Jane Goodall: Found to have copied content in “Seeds of Hope” from Wikipedia and other websites.
  11. Cristiane Serruya: Exposed as a plagiarist by author Courtney Milan, leading to a social media storm and the end of her writing career.

Plagiarism can be intentional or accidental, but it always has the potential to damage careers and reputations.

With the internet, instances of plagiarism have become more common, or perhaps they are just identified more frequently now. Using a plagiarism checker, like the one from Bytescare, can help ensure the originality of written content.

Useful Resource: Famous Artists Who Plagiarized

Examples of Plagiarism in Real Life

Plagiarism has been a contentious issue throughout history, spanning various fields and eras. From ancient poets to modern politicians and celebrities, the act of using someone else’s work without proper attribution has led to numerous scandals.

Here are five real-life examples of celebrities accused of plagiarism:

1. James Corden

James Corden faced accusations of plagiarism when his monologue on The Late Late Show closely mirrored a joke from Ricky Gervais’ 2018 Netflix comedy special Humanity. Corden later apologised for the incident.

2. Khloé Kardashian

Accusation: Ripping off a local fashion brand

In 2017, designer Destiney Bleu accused Khloé Kardashian and her clothing company Good American of stealing designs from her fashion line DBleudazzled. The matter was reportedly settled out of court.

3. Hailey Bieber

Accusation: Plagiarising a quote on social media

Hailey Bieber posted an inspirational quote on Instagram without crediting the author, Melissa Molomo. Molomo sent a cease-and-desist letter to Bieber, who then deleted the post.

4. Taylor Swift

Taylor Swift was accused of using a logo for her 2020 album Folklore merchandise that closely resembled the logo of The Folklore, a black-owned business. Swift’s team responded by agreeing to update the designs.

5. Chris Brown and Drake

Accusation: Copyright infringement

Chris Brown and Drake were accused of plagiarising the song “I Love Your Dress” by Brandon Cooper and Timothy Valentine in their 2019 collaboration “No Guidance.” The case was eventually settled out of court.

These instances highlight the ongoing issue of plagiarism in various forms of media and the importance of crediting original work.


The cases we explored highlight the importance of respecting intellectual property. Whether it’s accidental plagiarism or a deliberate attempt to deceive, the consequences can be severe.

These famous plagiarism lawsuit cases serve as a cautionary tale for students, writers, musicians, and all content creators.

To ensure your work is original, consider using plagiarism checkers like Bytescare to identify any unintentional similarities.

Remember, proper citation and attribution are key to ethical creation. Still have questions? Contact us for more information on Bytescare Plagiarism Checker and safeguard your own originality.


What constitutes plagiarism?

Plagiarism goes beyond simply copying words. It’s the act of using someone else’s ideas, work, or even structure without proper attribution. This can include copying text directly (direct plagiarism), paraphrasing heavily without citation, or even presenting someone else’s data or ideas as your own.

What are some famous plagiarism cases in literature?

Historical instances include the controversy over Helen Keller’s “The Frost King” and allegations against authors like Dan Brown for “The Da Vinci Code.”

Write first instance of plagiarism?

The earliest documented case of plagiarism dates back to 80 AD, involving the Roman poet Martial. He discovered that Fidentinus, another poet, was reciting Martial’s own poems as if they were his creations.

While it was a common practice for poets to share each other’s works, it was customary to give proper credit, a courtesy Fidentinus neglected.

In response to this deliberate act of plagiarism, Martial took the only recourse available to him in an era before copyright laws.

He composed a series of poems that exposed Fidentinus, branding him as a “plagiarus” – a term denoting a kidnapper, seducer, and plunderer, thereby publicly shaming him for his actions.

What happens if you’re caught plagiarising in an academic setting?

The consequences vary depending on the severity and whether it’s intentional. Penalties can range from failing the assignment to expulsion from the institution.

How serious are plagiarism cases outside of academia?

Plagiarism can have serious consequences outside academia too. It can lead to lawsuits, damaged reputations, and even job loss.

Is there a specific percentage of plagiarism that’s considered acceptable?

There’s no universal “acceptable” plagiarism percentage. It depends on the context and the style guide being used. However, it’s always best to strive for proper citation and originality.

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