One of this week’s hot topics in the songwriting world is that of Sam Smith’s hit track Stay With Me vs Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers I Won’t Back Down. Below are links to the two tracks, and undeniably, the melody in Smith’s chorus is exactly the same as Petty’s 1989 track.
The outcome? Tom Petty and his co-writer and collaborator Jeff Lynne received songwriting credits on the track, which has sold over 4 million copies so far. Smith, who wrote the song with top songwriter Jimmy Napes (Clean Bandit, Naughty Boy, Disclosure) and William Phillips admitted that the songs sounded the same but the similarities were coincidental, as none of the writers were previously familiar with the track.
But what constitutes plagiarism? And what do we mean when we say copyright?
Plagiarism, or musical copywriting, is when you use someone else’s melody or lyrics and pass them off as your own song. Another facet of plagiarism occurs in sampling, which is when you a take a portion of one sound recording and reuse it in a different song: this is very popular in rap music.
Copyright protects a literary, musical, dramatic, choreographic, pictorial, graphic or sound recording from being reproduced without the permission of the copyright owner. In terms of songwriting, the life of copyright lasts for 70 years after the owner’s death and in recorded music, recently modified in 2011, the life of copyright is 70 years after the original recording of the track.
So when writing your next big hits, be mindful of what has come before – take inspiration from artists you admire, but if you are lifting melodic or lyrical chunks from your favourite song and passing them off as your own, well, it’s musical stealing – also known as copyright infringement.
Listen hear to some of the most popular songs which have been sued for copyright infringement, and try and find some of your own. Tweet @songacademyUK with your findings.