All slow pop songs sound the same? On Fair Use and some such.

Have you heard Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me”? You must have. It’s all over the place. Everybody loves it. (Even if you can’t really dance to it.) Some people pointed out the chorus sounds a lot like another ubiquitous pop song of yesteryear – Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”. Not sure? check this out:

Now you might say, “Oh, there’s nothing new under the sun! Chords are chords! Any similarity is incidental!” And you might be right. Smith was born three years after Petty’s song was all over radio, so he has some plausible deniability, maybe.

But this week it emerged that the two settled out of court in October and that Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne would receive song writing credits and royalties. If the song wins a Grammy this year, does this mean Petty and Lynne are included? We’ll see.

These sorts of lawsuits are fairly common, though Robin Thicke’s pre-emptive lawsuit against the estate of Marvin Gaye was a new twist. The remix of the two songs is pretty good, and really with enough drugs is everything a remix? In a somewhat ironic twist of fate, one of the most well known lawsuits of this kind is Bright Tunes Music vs. Harrisongs because George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” sounds an awful lot like The Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine”. What do you think? Harrison (as seen in the video) sang and played guitar on Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down”.

Fair Use with music is interesting because of the laws on what can and cannot be covered by copyright and the artistic intent. A counter example I’ve been obsessing over is the song “Respect”. The original 1965 version by Otis Redding is a stomper, driven by Al Jackson’s drumming and peppered with the Memphis Horns. It’s so clearly a Stax song. Of course the 1967 cover by Aretha Franklin is iconic – an anthem for women all over. It’s also a very different song, so different I think it’s foolish to compare the two. (I tried for most of 2014.) The words and the basic melodies are the same, but the arrangements made them stand apart. Check out the Ike & Tina Turner cover which is a pretty perfect combination of the two.

Lots of covers differ much from the original that they could be considered completely different songs, but as long as the melody or the lyrics are used, then they need permission. The words are obvious – as evident from “Respect” even though the music doesn’t fully match up. In the Smith/Petty case, it’s a little bit more uncertain but there’s enough there. What’s this mean for librarians? Nothing new really, but it’s interesting when the lines are less blurred. (Pun intended.) Of course, there could be a whole follow up on sampling.

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