Tom Petty Sues Sam Smith, Wins $$

In a case of classic rock and roll icon versus upstart pop crooner, Tom Petty has successfully sued Sam Smith for songwriting royalties. Apparently this was settled smoothly and amicably in October, although it only came to light this January, and will cost Smith a good amount of money.

Tom Petty’s song “I Won’t Back Down” is from 1989 and Sam Smith’s smash hit “Stay With Me” topped the charts last year.

Photo by SparkCBC for
Photo by SparkCBC for

Although these two songs are in different keys and have unrelated lyrics, the general beat and other elements of Petty’s song do sound remarkably like Smith’s current hit. Listeners noticed this and alerted Smith’s people, who decided not to contest this. In an unusual move, the song “Stay With Me” will now have four songwriting credits: the two original, Smith and Jimmy Napes, as well as Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne, who is best known for his band ELO. Both Petty and Lynne received a 12.5% songwriting credit, which will reap them considerable royalty payments because it sold nearly 4 million copies.

With this credit, Tom Petty has returned to the Top 40 radio playlist. The last time he had a song lodged in the Top 40 was over 20 years ago.

Throughout the history of rock and roll and pop music, there have been cases of songs that sounded a bit too much alike, and a few of the cases have gone to court and become celebrated. One of the most famous is George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” being found to sound too much like “He’s So Fine” by the Chiffons. The suit against Harrison’s hit song began in 1971, and went to trial in early 1976.

Eventually Harrison was found guilty of “subconscious plagiarism” and had to pay nearly $1.6 million to the music publisher behind “He’s So Fine.”

To my ears, the 1960s soul instrumental “Time is Tight” by Booker T and the MGs sounds way too similar to Squeeze’s 1981 “In Quintessence.” And more recently the song “Under the Pressure” by the War on Drugs sounds quite similar to Roxy Music’s 1982 “More Than This,” although that does not seem to be in the news (yet).

Musical influences get name-checked in various songs, but?on occasion?newer songs sound a bit too much like?bits and pieces have been?borrowed from earlier songs. Another related issue is sampling of songs in rap and hip hop songs, without permission from the original artists.

Sam Smith, if you win a Grammy award for “Stay With Me,” will you invite Mr. Petty up on stage to hold the trophy as well?

Ellen Levitt is the author of The Lost Synagogues of Brooklyn (2009), The Lost Synagogues of the Bronx and Queens (2011) and The Lost Synagogues of Manhattan (2013), all published by Avotaynu. She is a lifelong New Yorker, a veteran public school teacher, writer and photographer. Bird lover as well.