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Lucky for Petty, He Won't Have to Back Down - Intellectual Property News

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Intellectual Property News

Posted on: Feb 2, 2015

By Kaylea Weiler, SmithAmundsen LLC

Recently, details emerged of an October 2014 settlement agreement whereby breakthrough British artist Sam Smith politely acknowledged that the chorus of his smash hit “Stay With Me” coincidentally sounds a lot like Tom Petty’s 1989 hit “I Won’t Back Down.” The settlement terms included Smith and his “Stay With Me” collaborators granting a songwriting credit to Petty and his “I Won’t Back Down” co-writer Jeff Lynne. This means Petty and Lynne are now entitled to a share of past and future royalties generated by “Stay With Me.” Smith stated that he was not familiar with Petty’s song, and in a statement released by Petty on January 29, he acknowledged that the whole thing was just a “musical accident.”[1] Accident or not, were the case to go before a U.S. court of law, Petty would be entitled to monetary relief as long as he could prove “substantial similarity” between the two songs.   

Ironically, the leading case[2] on the issue was a lengthy and dramatic legal battle involving George Harrison, who was a close personal friend of Petty’s. The two were bandmates in The Traveling Wilburys, and Harrison even played guitar and backup vocals for Petty on the recording of “I Won’t Back Down.”[3] 

Harrison was on the other end of the copyright fight, however, when the owners of the copyright in the composition for “He’s So Fine” claimed that Harrison’s 1970 hit “My Sweet Lord”[4] infringed the doo-wop chart-topper recorded by the Chiffons. Harrison claimed he did not deliberately use or even refer to the music from “He’s So Fine” when he wrote “My Sweet Lord.” The court agreed that it was “apparent…that neither Harrison nor [his collaborator] were conscious of the fact that they were utilizing the ‘He’s So Fine’ theme.” However, given the widespread success of “He’s So Fine,” the court ultimately concluded that Harrison must have been aware of it, and that “his subconscious knew [the theme] had already worked in a song his conscious mind did not remember.” The court then found that Harrison infringed the Chiffon hit and entered a verdict for the plaintiffs. It made no difference that the infringement was “innocent” or unintentional. Despite continued success of “My Sweet Lord,”[5] Harrison was extremely distraught by the court’s ruling, and refused to listen to the radio for fear of another instance of “subconscious infringement.”[6]         

Though the Harrison case could support a claim that Sam Smith infringed Petty’s work, Petty may not have prevailed were the parties to litigate the matter. An important distinction would be that in the Harrison case, the entire composition (except for the lyrics) of “My Sweet Lord” was almost identical to “He’s So Fine,” including the background “mantras” of “Hallelujah” and “Hare Krishna” sounding quite like the backup phrases in the Chiffons version. But according to Petty, he never intended to file a lawsuit against Smith.[7]

Lucky for Petty, he didn’t have to. Smith acted quickly to ensure the dispute was resolved quietly and amicably. Since the news broke of the Petty/Smith debacle, Petty has been the subject of vast criticism. One “former” fan in Colorado even went so far as to say that Petty has “COPPED OUT TO CORPORATE GREED.”[8]  Others support Petty’s decision to “call [Smith] out.”[9]  But perhaps the most poignant response: “What would George say about this?”[10]

[1], “A Statement from Tom Petty,” January 29, 2015.  See also, Schneider, Marc, “Tom Petty Addresses Sam Smith’s Songwriting Snafu: ‘The Word Lawsuit was Never Even Said,’’ Billboard, January 29,2015.

[2] See Bright Tunes Music Corp. v. Harrisongs Music, Ltd. 420 F. Supp. 177 (S.D.N.Y. 1976).

[3] Snow, Mat. “Tom Petty Interview” MOJO Magazine, January 2010 (194).

[4] “My Sweet Lord” was the first single released by a former-Beatle to reach number one, in both the US and the UK.

[5] Harrison re-recorded and re-released the song in 2001, shortly before his death.  That version of the song also reached number one in the UK charts and appeared in the US Billboard Hot 100 for 2001.  Both the original recording and the 2001 recording continue to have widespread airplay to date.

[6] In her autobiography, “Wonderful Tonight: George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Me,” Harrison’s ex-wife recalls a time after the ruling, when Harrison strictly prohibited the presence of any radios in their home and kindly asked all traveling companions to keep the radio turned off when he was in the vehicle.

[7] See note 1, supra.

[8] commenter ShaeKirsten, in response to Petty’s official statement on January 29, 2015. (emphasis in original).

[9] commentator emigato, in response to Petty’s official statement on January 29, 2015.

[10] commentator Laura T, in response to Petty’s official statement on January 29, 2015.


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