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]