The ink was barely dry on this year’s 2015 Grammy nominations when a news story broke involving two time nominee (song and record of the year) Sam Smith and a gospel influenced ditty called “Stay With Me”. It appears that Smith and his co writers (James Napier and William Phillips) had stumbled onto a coveted hook chorus (so essential to getting on today’s charts). The problem was that the chorus has an identical chord progression to the 1989 Tom Petty/Jeff Lynne hit “ I Won’t Back Down”.
Not wanting to place a controversial legal suit into play, Smith and fellow nominee Petty, (he for best rock album Hypnotic Eye) in a remarkable gesture of non combative negotiations, agreed upon a settlement where Petty and Lynne’s names were added to the writing credits of “Stay With Me”. This case sets an interesting (if not legal) precedence by keeping past earnings off the table and essentially allowing Petty and Lynne to take an equal percentage of what should still be a viable sales generator (usually associated with post Grammy momentum).
Without this amicable settlement Smith v Petty could have had stayed in court for years.
If one listens to both songs at face value they are clearly from totally different genres which could on the surface (and to an average listener), appear to make for two unique compositions. This could lead to reasonable doubt in a jury. Add that to Smith’s credible
denial that the lift was unintentional and its possible to confuse the jury into an acquittal.
There is a history of relatively obscure David’s going against (and beating) the industry Goliaths. Currently, sixties band Spirit, who had an obscure instrumental called “Taurus" in 1968 that sounds remarkably like Led Zeppelin’s Stairway to Heaven (1971) is suing Robert Plant and Jimmy Page. The band is claiming Zeppelin was exposed to Taurus during performances when the two groups toured with one another in 1969.
Also, one of late Beatle George Harrison’s hits My Sweet Lord was found to be unintentionally plagiarized from a 1963 Chiffons single called “He’s So Fine” proving that even a megastar is vulnerable.
Perhaps, as some have suggested, all of the notes and chord positions of palpable melodies have been used up, and pop is truly eating itself alive. There is so much music being produced within the course of one week alone that it may become more common place for settlements (both in and out of courts) brought on by alleged thievery. Could it be the dawning of a new era of atonal and unique composition is upon us?
Listen For Yourself