The Lawsuit That Wasn’t: Sam Smith, Tom Petty and a Happy Ending

The intellectual property attorneys at Bowie and Jensen discuss a recent high-profile copyright infringement case in the world of pop music.

Intellectual property cases often involve esoteric criteria for determining whether someone’s work has been improperly appropriated. When that decision is literally in the ear of the beholder the distinction becomes even more difficult, and sometime acrimonious. That’s why the recent amicable resolution of an issue between pop artist Sam Smith and rock and roll legend Tom Petty is notable.

Charges of plagiarism and copyright infringement have been woven throughout the history of pop and rock music, with perhaps the most notable case occurring in 1971 when a court determined that George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” had infringed the melody, rhythm and chord progressions of “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons. Among the results were a multimillion dollar settlement and a reluctance by the former Beatle to compose anything new for several years, for fear of accidentally running afoul of existing material.

That cautionary tale led to a new trend in the music industry in which legitimate claims by an existing composer were addressed by adding that composer’s name to the songwriting credits on the new piece in question, thus sharing the royalties and avoiding a potentially costly court settlement.

Flash forward to January of this year, when Tom Petty realized that the smash hit “Stay With Me” by Sam Smith bore a remarkable musical resemblance to his own classic “Won’t Back Down.” The newer song being one of the bigger hits of 2014, with almost 4 million units sold. This case is just as notable for what didn’t happen – a lawsuit – as for what did.

Petty’s publishers reached out to Smith’s to point out the similarities between the two songs. All parties involved agreed the similarities were complete coincidence and Smith’s team responded by immediately adding songwriting credits to the piece for both Petty and his co-writer Jeff Lynne. The resolution of the situation was remarkable for both the speed with which it was handled and the absence of any discord.

Tom Petty then issued a statement calling the event “a musical accident” and saying in part, “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.”

There are many instances like that of Tom Petty and Sam Smith, but more often than not copyright cases find their way into court and juries are given the task to decide infringement issues. The experienced intellectual property attorneys at Bowie & Jensen LLC will further delve into copyright issues next month when they discuss “Blurred Lines”, “Got to Give It Up” and the ensuing battle between Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and the estate of Marvin Gaye.