There are famous, woefully obvious cases of musical plagiarism. Vanilla Ice’s unauthorized sampling of Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure in his much more forgettable Ice, Ice Baby comes to mind first.
That’s the clearcut, shaking my head sort of copyright infringement. But the waters get much murkier in terms of who owns what in a musical canon that isn’t getting any smaller. There are only twelve notes in the Western scale, and only so many ways to arrange them.
Which brings us to the bit of news that Tom Petty has been awarded a percentage of songwriting royalties and a writer’s credit on Sam Smith‘s 2014 breakout hit “Stay With Me.”
Huh? You might ask.
Well unbeknownst to us, when the track was released in April of last year, many well-tuned listeners thought the chorus bared a striking resemblance to Petty’s “Won’t Back Down.”
Petty’s lawyers agreed, and reached an agreement with camp Smith for a whopping 12.5% of royalties. They settled back in October, but the details have only just emerged.
In addition, Pettey and singer-composer Jeff Lynne (of ELO fame) have been given songwriting credits, as shown here on the song’s credit on ASCAP (American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers):
Consequence of Sound quotes one source close to the case saying:
“When Sam’s track was originally released, it was clear to a lot of musicians that there were notable similarities between the tracks,” referring specifically to melodies of the respective choruses. “After it was pointed out to Sam’s camp, they didn’t try to fight it and amicably dished out royalties. It wasn’t a deliberate thing, musicians are just inspired by other artists and Sam and his team were quick to hold up their hand when it was officially flagged.”
A rep for Smith added:
“Not previously familiar with the 1989 Petty/Lynne song, the writers of ‘Stay With Me’ listened to ‘I Won’t Back Down’ and acknowledged the similarity. Although the likeness was a complete coincidence, all involved came to an immediate and amicable agreement in which Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne are now credited as co-writers of ‘Stay With Me’ along with Sam Smith, James Napier and William Phillips.”
“Stay With Me” was one of the most successful singles of 2014, selling around 4 million copies. It’s also up for Best Pop Performance and Record of the Year at the 2015 Grammy Awards.
Here are the two choruses played over one another. What do you think?