Rock Legend Tom Petty Awarded Settlement in Copyright Dispute Over Song Similarities

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Last month, singer-songwriter Sam Smith settled a copyright dispute with rocker Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne over similarities between Smith’s hit single, “Stay With Me,” and Petty’s 1989 classic, “I Won’t Back Down.” As the result of the settlement, “Stay With Me” now lists Petty and Lynne as co-writers alongside Smith, James Napier, and William Phillips.

While Smith’s team acknowledges similarities between his and Petty’s songs, they insist that these similarities are coincidental.

Music copyright lawsuits are frequently lengthy, contentious battles that more often than not result in little gained by either the defendant or plaintiff.

Throughout history, we’ve seen many well-known artists come under fire, and being accused of infringing on another songwriter’s copyright.

Johnny Cash was once sued by singer-songwriter Gordon Jenkins for using the lyrics and melody from Jenkins’ “Crescent City Blues” in Cash’s song “Folsom Prison Blues;” Huey Lewis sued Ray Parker, Jr. for similarities between his song “I Want a New Drug” and Parker’s “Ghostbusters’ Theme;” Cat Stevens sued The Flaming Lips for similarities between Stevens’ “Father and Son” and the Lips’ “Fight Test;” and guitarist Joe Satriani sued Coldplay over similarities between Satriani’s “If I Could Fly” and Coldplay’s “Viva La Vida.”

In a statement following the settlement on his website, Tom Petty said, “that he had no hard feelings toward Smith and that ‘these things happen.'”

“No hard feelings toward Smith and that ‘these things happen.'”Tom Petty

According to People magazine interview, Tom explained, “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.”

It is noted, previously Mr. Petty also issued a complaint over politician Michelle Bachmann’s use of ‘American Girl’ during campaign season but it did not go to trial.  You can learn more about filing a similar legal complaint here.

Intellectual property cases have to do with copyrights, patents, trademarks, and industrial design rights, among other forms of intangible property.

By definition, these cases have to do with “creations of the mind.”

But what goes into an intellectual property case?

In the music industry, songs are copyrighted (which is different from being trademarked).

A songwriting copyright has to do with two things, and two things only: melody and lyrics. Production, instrumentation, chord progressions, percussion, and background harmonies are more often than not excluded from consideration during copyright disputes.

In the case of the Petty/Smith dispute, the most striking similarities between the songs occurred as part of the melody during the songs’ choruses.

Technically, music is copyrighted the moment it comes into existence. Record a demo?  Write it on paper?  That song is now copyrighted (though, it’s best to register that copyright with the Copyright Office in Washington, D.C.).

In order to prove that someone has infringed upon your copyright, you must first prove a number of things:

  1. Prove that you own the copyright

The first step in any copyright lawsuit is to prove that you do, in fact, own the copyright for the material in question.

The best way to do this is to register the copyright with the Copyright Office prior to the creation of the song you allege infringes on that copyright.

  1. Demonstrate that the infringer had access to the song

What makes the Petty/Smith case interesting is that even though the two sides have settled, Smith’s team remains adamant that not only were the similarities merely coincidental, but that Smith and his co-writers weren’t familiar with “I Won’t Back Down.”

This is hard to believe, given that the song peaked at number 12 on the Billboard Hot 100, and number one on Billboard’s Album Rock Tracks chart.

Short of having a hit song like Petty and Lynne, proving access is a somewhat challenging process.

For example, if you’re a singer-songwriter from a small midwestern town, haven’t put out an album, and have only performed in extremely small venues, it’s going to be hard to prove that a Grammy-nominated superstar had been exposed to your music.

  1. Prove that the infringing song is “substantially similar” to your copyrighted work

Obviously, for something to be infringing on your copyright, it needs to actually resemble your original. While there’s no set standard for what constitutes similarity worthy of infringement, this is a key element in any dispute.  If you find yourself facing a a legal dispute, share the details of your legal case here, we’ll match you with the best attorney available experienced in your case type.

In the end, after demonstrating that you own a copyright, that the infringer had access to the work, and that the infringing work is substantially similar to your copyrighted work, the outcome ultimately ends up in the hands of a judge, carrying with it some uncertainty as these factors (particularly, defining what “substantially similar” entails) are very much up for interpretation.

Featured Image Credit: Singer and songwriter Tom Petty performs during the half time show of the NFL’s Super Bowl XLII football game between the New England Patriots and the New York Giants in Glendale, Arizona February 3, 2008. (Reuters/Lucy Nicholson)

pmm_headshot-150x150About the Author: Parker Marie Molloy is a Chicago-based writer and essayist. She graduated from Columbia College Chicago in June 2009, and her writing has been featured in outlets such as Rolling Stone, The New York Times, and The Guardian.

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