Sam Smith v. Tom Petty – Copyright

Mallory Langston

Mallory Langston

Of all the great disputes that never were, the Tom Petty vs. Sam Smith Battle Royale-That-Wasn’t shall live in infamy.  If you’ve been too busy following the titillating drama that is Lindsay Lohan’s race to finish her community service, lest she get locked up <insert hard eye-roll here>, here’s what’s been happening in the music world.

Tom Petty didn’t sue Sam Smith.

I’m making this sound less exciting than it is:  Sam Smith co-wrote, recorded, and released a song that sounds awfully familiar to those of us who’ve ever owned a radio, visited a shopping mall, ridden in an elevator, watched a campaign rally, etc., etc.  Smith’s “Stay With Me” rings bells for those of us who’ve ever heard Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.”  And the truth is, “those of us” is most of us.  In the wake of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the U.S., the 1989 hit re-emerged as an anthem of American resilience.  “I Won’t Back Down” lurks somewhere in the recesses of your memory, whether you like it or not.

Chatter of “Stay With Me because I Won’t Back Down-Gate” started quickly upon the release of Smith’s track.  Copyright geeks (yours truly included) waited with bated breath for the first blow to strike.

Then civility happened.  Smith admitted that, though he certainly didn’t intend to poach Petty’s groove, the songs bore striking resemblances to one another.  Smith couldn’t recall ever having heard Petty’s hit <insert another especially hard eye roll here>, but agreed to give Petty a songwriting credit and a share of the royalties.  It’s a win for Petty, but it’s an even bigger win for Smith.

If we’ve learned anything from Rob Van Winkle, a.k.a. Vanilla Ice, it’s that when the copyright infringement hammer comes down hard, it comes down earth-shatteringly hard.  And copyright infringement need not be intentional to be punishable.  The penalties are harshest if it’s done with knowledge or intent (Sorry, Rob).  But nevertheless, if you’ve had access to the source material (I’m looking at you, Smith), and your work sounds strikingly similar to the source material (still looking at you, Smith), your goose could be cooked in a court of law.

I and the other copyright dweebs out there will just have to wait patiently for another great headline like, “John Fogerty sues John Fogerty for Sounding Like John Fogerty and Wins and Loses.”  (And that really happened.)

Until then, kudos to Smith and Petty for not being petty.

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