I once ran across one of those Parade magazine question and answer features a number of years back when someone asked Marilyn Vos Savant if we’ll run out of music one day. So will we run out of an original combination of music notes? Will the music die one day thus literally taking singer-songwriter Don McLean’s “American Pie” come true? The gifted Ms. Vos Savant replied through her massive intellect that it is impossible.
In general, I believe Ms. Von Savant that original music will always be possible, but there are times when the thought gives me pause. Take for instance what happened in the music world in late January this year. Singer Sam Smith settled a lawsuit from fellow musician Tom Petty. The suit charged that the chart-topping Smith single, “Stay with Me” contains a number of similarities to Petty’s 1989 hit, “I Won’t Back Down.” I confess that when I first heard Smith’s single on the radio, I would start singing “I Won’t Back Down” to myself. On a side note, I would never do that with anyone in the car including my teen daughter who would immediately start screaming for me to stop. I sing everything Morton Downey, Jr.-style, so sue me! On second thought, don’t and a note to Morton’s people, I’m jesting and I promise that I’ll will never be the late great Morton. Hey, that’s the fun about getting older: I can go on a “side note” here, make obscure Morton Downey, Jr. references and break out into song when the urge hits me. OK, I’m turning into my grandfather. I’ll stop.
Nevertheless, I kept singing the Petty song in the car solo every time Smith’s “Stay with Me” came on the radio. Low and behold, the lawsuit came out and I shrieked, “I knew it! They are similar!” I didn’t want to say anything for all of those months because people would have thought I was crazier thanI already appeared. Of course the younger set who don’t know Tom Petty said that there are no similarities. The geezers like me said yes and guess what? We won! It was confirmed that there are unintentional coincidences between the two compositions. At the end of the day, Petty’s folks said that they will take about 12 percent of the song’s credit. All parties agreed that if there are any accolades for the song, Smith will receive them. Fair enough. Tom Petty and fellow writer/producer/performer Jeff Lynne of Electric Light Orchestra fame, have had their moments in the sun.
So, how does this happen? Smith says that he wasn’t thinking about the Petty tune when he and two others penned “Stay with Me,” but was “I Won’t Back Down” on their minds without them realizing it? Obviously no court can go back in time and read what a songwriter was thinking, but certainly a huge 25+-year-old hit was in the songwriting team’s subconscious and there’s nothing wrong with that fact.
One song similarity suit happened in the mid-1980s with the Ghostbusters theme song. After the Ray Parker, Jr. song shot up the charts in 1984, Huey Lewis of Huey Lewis and the News charged that his 1983 song, “I Want a New Drug” was similar. I thought Huey and company were wrong. When listening to both songs back to back on my cassette player at the time, I heard the same rhythm. Huey and Ray later settled.
Other examples of song similarities include the late 1980s duo Milli Vanilli. Their song “All or Nothing” drew heavily from the 1968 Blood, Sweat and Tears song, “Spinning Wheel.” That lawsuit said that Milli and company used the melody without their permission. That lawsuit stands in stark contrast to those who sample music. Obviously, artists like Eminem get permission when using the sampling technique for their works.