King Solomon, who owned massive piles of gold, famously wrote, “There is nothing new under the sun”. Professional songwriters like me have long had a quiet conspiracy around that idea. And now that one of our own - Tom Petty – has blown the whistle we can enjoy even more ways to lose money as a musician. Awesome.
Late last year Petty’s publishing company reached out to singer Sam Smith and alleged that Smith’s monster 2014 breakout hit:
…was surely a rip-off of Tom’s 1989 hit “Won’t Back Down”:
Sam’s people quickly acquiesced. And now Petty, with his 15 Top 40 hits (the last of which was over 20 years ago), is listed as a co-writer on Sam’s debut hit “Stay With Me”.
The gut reaction I immediately felt and heard from friends both in and out of the music industry was, “Wow. Really?”. It felt like a David/Goliath thing that violated what every musician knows – that everything generated is derivative of something else. Pablo Picasso even once said said,
“Good artists borrow, great artists steal”.
This “Petty act” has now moved the threshold, for all songwriters, between what is a commonly used vocabulary of elements (mayonnaise, sweet pickle relish, yellow mustard) and what is a signature, copyright-able work (Big Mac special sauce) to a scary place. Musicians who are fortunate enough to strike gold can now look forward to entirely new level of scrutiny in the courtroom with questions like: “Have you ever heard the song you’re being accused of stealing?” (Um…music plays everywhere so probably), “In your academic opinion, (insert name of out-of-touch musicologist), are these songs structurally similar?” (Well, yeah. Every pop song uses the same four chords) and “Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, what verdict do you think will most likely get you an autograph from that iconic celebrity sitting right over there?
Based on this video, I guess Tom Petty has a lot of court dates coming up:
I’ll also guess that when Mr. Petty was in the recording studio recording his 1989 hit “Here Come My Girl”..
…that he realized his drum intro sounded exactly like the one in this Grammy-winning Boz Scaggs hit released just four years earlier:
But those are just the musical building blocks we all openly share right, Tom? Drum intros are fair game. Whereas Sam Smith and his co-writers, on the other hand, petted their white cats and laughed maniacally as they imported your three-chord progression into Pro Tools, saved themselves a whole lot of time and energy and went down to the pub and enjoyed a drink on your dime right?
Good bust, officer. Good on you.
Mike Bielenberg is a professional musician and co-founder of http://www.musicrevolution.com, a production music marketplace with over 33,000 tracks online where media producers, video producers, filmmakers, game developers, businesses and other music buyers can license high-quality, affordable royalty-free music from an online community of musicians email@example.com.