When musicians unintentionally steal

Pacific Standard:

Imagine your favorite musician, actor, filmmaker, or painter. Undoubtedly, each one grew up idolizing—emulating, even—their artistic heroes. As such, if you pay close enough attention, it’s not hard to see those influences permeating the artist’s work. But at what point does paying homage to source material become a swindle?

For young British crooner Sam Smith, that line was crossed last October when Tom Petty and songwriter Jeff Lynne noticed that Smith’s single “Stay With Me” was too reminiscent of Petty’s 1989 hit “I Won’t Back Down.” (It was announced on Monday that Petty now has a songwriter credit and will receive royalties.) While the two songs have eerily similar choruses, it raises an interesting question: Are artists in these scenarios always deliberately plagiarizing, or is there something subtler, perhaps subconscious, at play?

There have been many such cases. There’s the dispute over the origins of Stairway to Heaven. There’s the plagiarism lawsuit over the origins of George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord (which, by the way, is the last Beatles/ex-Beatles song to go to #1 on the Billboard charts in the UK – See the comments to learn why the change). And so on.

The linked article digs into some of the science behind all this:

There is, as it turns out, a known phenomenon, called cryptomnesia, where previously stored memories present themselves as original creations. We’ve all experienced something like this: You’re asked your opinion on a newsworthy subject and, perhaps unconsciously, find yourself parroting an op-ed you read earlier in the day.

Music is mathematical in nature. Every rhythm has its roots somewhere. Every chord has been played before. There certainly is originality in music, but the vast majority of musicians grow up learning to play music created by others. Those learned melodies and musical techniques form a foundation that cannot be unlearned. Translation: This sort of thing was bound to happen, and bound to happen again.

Back to the Sam Smith / Tom Petty song issue, here’s what Tom Petty had to say:

About the Sam Smith thing. Let me say I have never had any hard feelings toward Sam. All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement. The word lawsuit was never even said and was never my intention. And no more was to be said about it. How it got out to the press is beyond Sam or myself. Sam did the right thing and I have thought no more about this. A musical accident no more no less. In these times we live in this is hardly news. I wish Sam all the best for his ongoing career. Peace and love to all.

Here’s a mashup comparing the Sam Smith and Tom Petty songs, side by side. [Hat tip Next Draft]

  • Ockham

    I was skeptical about this as I was reading thinking that there was only a vague resemblance. Then I got to the mashup. Pretty convincing. I think Tom Petty handled it pretty well by not making a big deal about it.

    • joseph

      I was the opposite. I just assumed (because I had never heard the sam smith song) that it was a clear rip off, but you have to speed up/slow down, pitch change BOTH songs in opposite directions to make them kind of somewhat sound a little similar. This seems like a big todo about nothing.

      It’s not like Courtney Love made everyone who used a grunge sounding guitar riff to pay Nirvana royalties.

  • I believe unintentional and even accident, but probably not coincidence. But I Won’t Back Down is over 25 years old now. It would be pretty easy to have heard it 10 years ago and noodle around today until you find it again and think you’ve discovered something new.

  • trex67
    George Harrison’s My Sweet Lord (which, by the way, is the last Beatles/ex-Beatles song to go to #1 on the Billboard charts)


    It was one of the first ex-Beatle number ones but it most certainly was NOT the last.

    McCartney number one singles (after “My Sweet Lord”): “Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey”; “My Love”; “Band on the Run”; “Listen to What the Man Said”; “Silly Love Songs”; “With a Little Luck”; “Coming Up”; “Ebony and Ivory” (with Stevie Wonder); “Say Say Say” (with Michael Jackson)

    John Lennon #1s: “Whatever Gets You thru the Night”; “(Just Like) Starting Over”

    Ringo Starr: “Photograph” (co-written with George Harrison…); “You’re Sixteen”.

    • trex67

      Forgot to add “Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth)”, Harrison’s second number one single, per Billboard…

    • Dave Mark

      My bad. I meant to say most recent #1 in the UK. It went to #1 in 2002, after Harrison’s death. Will make the fix!

  • Cranky Observer

    That’s why the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, The Who, etc spend their downtime roaming the back roads of Mississippi and Louisiana repaying the blues musicians whose music they “borrowed” from 1960-1970 with $100k checks.

    • Mark Cormack

      There is only one like button and I need one thousand

  • richardmac

    To me, Sam Smith’s chorus was instantly recognizable as the same as the Petty song, but I’ve been a musician/songwriter for a long, long time. Like Petty, I’m surprised it made it to publishing without someone pointing this out, but like Petty I believe it was unintentional.

    The melodic idea here is not original to Petty, and he’d freely admit that, and also say that he didn’t intentionally copy it from anyone. This is how melody writing works. You come up with a melody that you like, and you put words to it (or the other way around.) You’re inventing that melody based on the types of intervals and phrases you like, which is based on the music you’ve listened to. But there are only 11 notes (the 12th is the octave) and only so many ways to combine them in a manner pleasing to today’s general audience. Nothing is “truly” original.

    But the line in the sand is that one song should not immediately bring to mind another song, as this one did, not just for me, but also for Petty. Who, I totally agree with Ockham, handled this well.

  • Moeskido

    Almost all Western music has structural commonalities, which is why mashup DJs like Mark Vidler, Best of Bootie, and The Kleptones have so much amusing and fun material to work with.

    Of course things like this are bound to happen, and probably do… way more often than most of us realize. Petty’s response sounded like a classy way to handle the issue.

  • matthewmaurice

    I’ve been a Tom Petty fan since “Somewhere, somehow, somebody must have kicked you around some”, but when I read “[t]he word lawsuit was never even said and was never my intention”, my opinion of of the man grew even higher.

  • Terry Maraccini

    Both parties settled this amicably. The Internet went hysterical. This unfortunately is typical.

  • John Dasher

    I think Dylan? once said all musicians are poets, magpies, and thieves…

  • Piniondna

    I immediately recognized the similarity, but I think there should be a legal litmus test applied in these situations similar to trademark violations: was there a deliberate effort to confuse the work with the original or dilute the “brand”? Can a monetary loss be reasonably claimed?

    I think that in almost ever case of so-called plagiarism that has been made in recent years the answer to these questions would be “no”. And if the answer to either of those questions is no then really who cares.

    Art is made on the inspiration of previous generations. To pretend that it is created in a vacuum is ridiculous. And just for the record, I much prefer Tom Petty to Sam Smith. Personally, I can’t stand the song in question, however I don’t think plagiarism is a fair charge, and I don’t believe Tom Petty deserves royalties even though the similarities are obvious. If anything people hearing this song might jostle a memory and cause them to purchase I Won’t Back Down as well.

    To me, legal plagiarism should be reserved for someone maliciously taking credit for another’s work, or attempting to create a work that so closely resembles another’s that obvious confusion would take place. Under this definition, many of the stock music libraries would fall under plagurism. And why not? They are deliberately attempting to compose music so close to another work that the resemblance is unmistakeable, but the licensing fees are avoided. Why is this fair, but when a well intentioned artist writes an original piece in a completely different genre with a similar melody people cry foul? Sam Smith’s song is a slow tempo, gospel ballad. Only the chorus is similar. Tom Petty’s work is an up tempo classic rock song release over two decades ago. I would venture to guess that many of the fans of Sam Smith have never heard of Tom Petty let alone knowingly heard one of his song. [Again, I love Tom Petty personally, but this is the likely reality.] How is this a scenario where someone has been wronged?

    Serious harm has been done to good artist who were accused of plagurism IMO wrongly. Just google the Australian ruling against Men At Work if you need an example. A talented musician very likely died in poverty of suicide due to the outcome of that case.

    Rant mode off.