It was announced today that Sam Smith has added Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne to the writing credits of his smash hit “Stay With Me” after Petty’s camp felt there was a similarity to Petty’s song “I Won’t Back Down”. Billboard
We give Smith & co huge props for doing this as they quite easily could have taken it to court and may have won. This move suggests that the music comes before riches for the British singer, a refreshing thing. He just wanted the song to be successful and after he acknowledged there were (unintended) similarities with Petty’s song, Smith and his representatives worked it all out behind the scenes and gave Petty and Lynne a 12.5% cut in the writers royalties (probably amounting to at least upper 6 figures).
Things like this happen all the time in songwriting, we’re always catching each other accidentally stealing melodies from others’ songs. Often it’ll be a song that’s not familiar to the offending writer, they may have heard it in passing and it stuck with them, sometimes for years, before manifesting in a ‘new’ melody. The typical thing would be to change a note or two, go up where the original melody goes down and you’re no longer infringing on any copyrighted material. It’s a bit of a gray area for musicians as there are only so many chord progressions or notes in a scale. Eventually, as a writer, you will accidentally ‘steal’ other people’s melodies and pass them off as your own. Sometimes it may hit you hours, days or months after perfecting a song that you’ve done it and you kick yourself for spending so much time on it only to have to change it or scrap it all together.
Other times a writer may deliberately choose to use someone else’s melody because it either inspired the rest of the song that now doesn’t sound the same without it, or because of the familiarity it brings. If a listener already knows a melody and likes it, they’ll be more drawn to the new song that incorporates it. You hear it all the time on radio, seemingly pointless uses of instrumental or vocal melodies get thrown into songs to make it catch a listener’s ear. Pitbull is a great example of this, melodies in his music are often borrowed (legally) to encourage fans from other demographics to become fans of his songs because of that initial familiar melody that they loved.
We feel for Sam Smith and the other writers as a song becomes your baby and now they have to share theirs with two other people. It’s highly unlikely that they were aware of the similarities in the songs but in all fairness the same copyright laws protecting Petty will also prevent others from using “Stay With Me” to make money without rewarding Smith.
It’s great to see musicians working this stuff out behind closed doors and out of the public domain, there is no need to tarnish a successful song by dragging it through court. Well played to all involved and music, this time, is the winner.