A brief history of why Tom Petty can get 12.5% of “Stay with Me”

Lucas Friedman, Contributing Writer

Has anyone ever cheated off you on a test, or stole your idea for a creative school project? If so, you might have felt frustrated, or betrayed, and the normal human reaction would be to seek the credit one deserves.

Plagiarism can be just as common in the professional world of entertainment, most prominently in the music industry. However, unlike cheating on a test, copying an artist’s music is crime known as copyright infringement.

Copyright infringement can not only lose a musician large sums of money, but it also tarnishes their reputation in the public’s eye.

Sam Smith, winner of four Grammys at this year’s show, has fallen under harsh speculation for copyright infringement for his award-winning song, “Stay With Me.” The song shares a very  similar melody to Tom Petty’s 1989 hit single “Won’t Back Down.”

The Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame inductee noticed the similarities, and sought out writing credits for the popular pop song. As the case enters the mainstream, perhaps the public should be informed on the logistics of copyright cases, while also taking a look at other famous copyright cases and how they might have impacted Sam Smith’s conundrum.

Ever since the world has adopted rock n’ roll into the mainstream, and music became a significant part of pop culture, there has been controversy on whether or not an artist’s work is 100% original. To make things clear, there is a fine line between imitating another artists’ styles, and actually stealing specific melodies or lyrics of a song. It is a common practice among musicians to share certain aspects of their style of play from one another. Bands such as Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones are famous for taking riffs and chords from old blues tunes, and giving them their own rock n’ roll undertones. It is also legal to make a parody of a song for comedic purposes, such as Weird Al Yankovic does. These artists, however, know when to draw the line.

Three famous cases to be noted are Bright Tune Music Corp vs. George Harrison, The Isley Brothers vs. Michael Bolton, and perhaps the most recognizable, David Bowie/Queen vs. Vanilla Ice. While all of these cases dealt with different aspects of copyright infringement, looking into them will give someone a great reference to determine if Sam Smith is liable.

George Harrison, lead guitarist of the Beatles, enjoyed reasonable success after the band broke up in 1970. Harrison took no time in releasing his first solo single, “My Sweet Lord,” in 1971, and it instantly sat at the top of the charts for 5 weeks. However, critics and music connoisseurs soon realized it shared resounding similarities to The Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine.” After five long years of litigation, he was finally found liable of “subconscious plagiarism,” and was subject to pay $587,000 of royalties. Harrison failed to make a profit from the song.

Michael Bolton fell under much harsher punishment for his song “Love is a Wonderful Thing,” which shared the same name and some lyrics as the less popular Isley Brothers version. Bolton was founded liable, and paid a total of $5.6 million to the Isley Brothers, granting them 66% of all royalties, and 28% of Bolton’s album which contained the song. This was the largest award granted in music history.

Anyone who has heard both Vanilla Ice’s hit “Ice Ice Baby,” and the collaboration song of Queen and David Bowie “Under Pressure,” has realized the practically identical bass line and drum beat. While the case was settled out of court, likely for a large sum of money, and Vanilla Ice’s numerous attempts to alter the beat, the two songs are the most popular songs to fall under copyright speculations.

Petty and Smith peacefully agreed on terms outside of a courthouse, and the two were very understanding of the situation, with Petty calling the ordeal, “a musical accident.” With all this said, Petty is enjoying 12.5% royalties and writing credits for the song, while Smith is enjoying immense fame as a new artist.