Barely Legally

Confessions of a Moot Court Bailiff

The Good Kind of Petty

Sam Smith wrote a hit song called Stay With Me. Well, “wrote” might be overstating it. He wrote new words and sang it to the tune of the timeless classic I Won’t Back Down by Tom Petty. Smith didn’t write a new melody over the same chord progression; he sang the same melody to the same tune. It’s pretty egregious. Listen to the original and the not-quite-cover version.

From Consequence of Sound:

Said one source close to the case, “When Sam’s track was originally released, it was clear to a lot of musicians that there were notable similarities between the tracks,” referring specifically to melodies of the respective choruses. “After it was pointed out to Sam’s camp, they didn’t try to fight it and amicably dished out royalties. It wasn’t a deliberate thing, musicians are just inspired by other artists and Sam and his team were quick to hold up their hand when it was officially flagged.”

It’s nice that they all were very friendly about it. Apparently, as part of the settlement, Sam Smith has given Tom Petty a songwriting credit on Stay With Me. This entitles Petty to a percentage of the royalties for future performances of his/their song.

According to ASCAP, there are now five people who have credit for Stay With Me. There’s Sam Smith himself, and now Tom Petty, and some professional songwriters and producers who were ostensibly paid to write this song but actually just lifted it from Tom Petty. I hope Mr. Smith kept his receipt.

But these aren’t necessarily the worst songwriters in the world. This is called cryptomnesia:

Throughout the 1990s, [Dr. Richard Marsh of the University of Georgia] and his colleagues conducted a number of studies on this issue, the most notable of which used the game Boggle to gauge how well people remembered whether they or their partner (in this case a computer) had thought of a specific word. The results of that particular experiment led Marsh and his colleague to recognize an “unambiguous existence of substantial unconscious plagiarism.”