There's a lot of heavy lifting going on. And I don't mean of fifty-pound weights. I hear a song on the radio that I think is something else and then I realize that it's not. But it sort of is.
It's all over the news: Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne will receive writing credit on Sam Smith's "Stay With Me" (Grammy Nominated for Song of the Year) because of it's melodic similarity to "Won't Back Down." Do I think it's derivative? It doesn't matter what I think. Tom Petty did. But he posted a comment in which he calmly mused: "musical accidents" basically happen all the time. And he wished Sam the best. You gotta love Tom.
Let's be real. Whether or not one ultimately gets busted for a transgression, premeditated or not, depends a lot on the zen of the infringee. And you can't get much more easy going than Tom Petty. But perhaps after having mercy on The Chili Peppers' resemblance to "Mary Jane's Last Dance" and on The Strokes for the similarities between the guitar riffs of "Last Nite" and "American Girl" he decided enough was enough...and Sam Smith happened to be there when he hit his wall. :(. I'm just projecting here. Maybe it wasn't Tom's call at all. Maybe it was Jeff Lynne who chimed in.
Recently I've been in songwriting sessions where the question isn't "should we or shouldn't we (lift a melody)?" but rather "what melody shall we lift?" And it's suggested..."if we get too close we can just change a note." Clearly this would not be an accident. There's an "everybody's doing it (and getting away with it)" mentality going around. Though I'm not sure that's what T.S. Eliot had in mind when he said good writers borrow, great writers steal. Bottom line: Familiarity Sells.
Do I think George Harrison meant to borrow from "He's So Fine" when he wrote "My Sweet Lord"? Neh. He certainly didn't need the money, more fame, or another hit. It's just that memorable songs linger in the back of our human minds and sometimes we're-write them'. It happens to everyone. (Like the time my hubby and I realized we ripped off "Big Bottom" from Spinal Tap. I assure you we wouldn't have chosen that song on purpose.)
Years ago (there I go again) if you borrowed eight notes of melody you were in jeopardy. Period. But technology has made things a little more complicated. Understandably, in today's courtroom, questionable familiarities have extended into areas including the beat, the tempo, the arrangement, the motifs.
There are times when a writer actually acknowledges he was trying to extract a certain sound or body of work. Case in point, when they were in the studio Robin Thicke has admitted saying to Pharrell Williams, "One of my favorite songs of all time was Marvin Gaye's 'Got To Give It Up.'" And he expressed wanting to "make" something like that. Indeed the song they made, "Blurred Lines," wound up having some remarkable parallels to "Got To Give It Up."
Things people have been wondering:
If you sample a beat, you have to pay for it...but if you copy it, that's Ok?
Just because Mr. Thicke said he wanted to "make a song like that" does it mean he succeeded under the law?
The writers preemptively sued to protect their composition. Doesn't that imply they believed they might be in risky territory?
We shall start finding out the answers in a couple of weeks when a trial gets underway.
Writers who rip off maliciously and feel they are too big to fail...or the ones who counter sue for defamation of character if you dare to suggest there's a likeness between your song and theirs... don't have my sympathy. I am all too aware that a**holes often triumph and angels often get defeated. It is my hope that in each questionable situation karma prevails.
And so, my many Facebook friends who are beside themselves because Sam, their beloved tender-hearted Grammy Nominee, has been tarnished in this 'musical accident' I suggest to you it is far from a fall from grace. I don't know him personally, although after listening to his album I get a feeling for where that tender heart lies: on his sleeve. I would like to believe this particular borrow was unconsciously inspired. But intent or not, if you run a red light and a cop is there you may very well get a ticket. Even if you're a one of the good guys.
PS: I have had two brushes with infringement myself: one where I was accused of doing it and the other where I felt it was being done to me. For the entertaining details of my respective mortification and displeasure stay tuned for my forthcoming book, "Confessions of a Serial Songwriter" due out later this year, (G-d willing by the summer).