Smith v. Petty.

{This one is dedicated to my closest brain-buddy, Emily.}

I’ve been carrying a hate on for Tom Petty for a while now.

In 2014 Tom Petty pointed out that Sam Smith’s Stay With Me sounded a lot like Won’t Back Down and and the media went crazy. Sam Smith apologized and said it was a coincidence. Tom Petty didn’t really seem to care and said his music is “out there so musical accidents happen”. Sam Smith gave Tom Petty a writing credit. Petty gets a cheque (12.5% for Petty, 12.5% for Jeff Lynn) every time a radio station plays Stay With Me.

Is that fair?

For a legitimate complaint you need to prove similarity and exposure. Did Smith hear Don’t Back Down and does Stay With Me sound like it?

Exposure. Petty released Won’t Back Down in 1989 it charted to number 12. Sam Smith was born in 1992. Stay With Me was released in 2014, 25 years after the aggrieved track was released. I was born in 1981. So it would be like me claiming I’d never heard Rich Girl by Daryl Hall and John Oates. Fuck. I love that song.


  • There are no lyrical similarities.
  • Stay With Me is a pop love song sung by a man falling apart with a choral backup.
    Won’t Back Down is an anti-establishment rock song sung solo by a confident frontman.)
  • Stay With Me is in the key of C.
    Won’t Back Down is in the key of G.
  • Stay With Me is 85 bpm.
    Won’t Back Down is 115 bpm.
  • Stay With Me has the chord progression Am7, F, C. (minor 6, 4, 1)
    Won’t Back Down has the chord progression Em, D, G. (minor 6, 5, 1)

To me these were totally different songs. I could hear the similarities but I could hear the differences too.

It’s all in the melody. That’s where I lose. Copyright protects melody of 8 notes or more. It does not care about context. It doesn’t care how many people are singing it. It doesn’t care if the 4 or 5 is being played over it.

I borrowed the following images from a blogger who transposed Stay With Me to G to compare it with Won’t Back Down.



Bars 2, 3 and 4, a.k.a. the smokin’ gun bars, show 13 identical intervals in sequence. Even if you take into account the 4/5 harmony notes it’s still 8 identical intervals in sequence which is more than enough for legal action. Fuck me.

I’m sorry Tom Petty. I was wrong.

I keep wanting to write something that redeems my original opinion but I have nothing.


One thought on “Smith v. Petty.

  1. Pingback: Intellectual Property v. Public Domain. | Brains to Byzantium

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s