Yesterday evening, while I was trolling the music news as I do from time to time, I saw a story about how Sam Smith and his co-writers for his Grammy-nominated hit “Stay With Me”  were sued by Tom Petty, who along with Jeff Lynne  wrote a much earlier hit called “I Won’t Back Down.” The argument of the songwriters of “Stay With Me” was that while there were obvious resemblances between the song (specifically, that the chord progression of the verse of “I Won’t Back Down” is nearly identical to the chorus of “Stay With Me”) that the borrowing was inadvertent, and they immediately agreed to fork over 12.5% of the royalties of the song in perpetuity to Messrs. Petty and Lynne, which will likely amount a large amount of money, as well as a granting of co-writing credit. While it is fairly easy to make snarky comments about Sam Smith, and the contrast between the tone of his song and that of Mr. Petty’s work, I would like to take a slightly different tack than picking on easy targets.
For one, I would not think that Mr. Petty would be the sort of person one would want to steal songs from. Throughout his entire career, Mr. Petty has always been rather acerbic towards the hippie aesthetic and has valued an honest appreciation of one’s influences. Quite unsurprisingly, he would wish to receive honest appreciation as an influence for others. Many artists are happy to oblige—his works with Jeff Lynne as a co-writer have been particularly prone to being covered effectively by others (witness, for example, the cover of “Free Fallin’” by John Mayer, which is but the most obvious example besides “Stay With Me.”). Yet this ferocity is likely to be fairly quick to attach itself to those who steal his creative works and attempt to appropriate their hooks for their own purposes. Quite understandably, Tom Petty wants to get paid for his work, especially one that was enough of an earworm to find itself as a key aspect of a hit more than twenty years after its original creation. Without that hook, “Stay With Me” would be just some whiny emo song about a one-night stand without any gravitas whatsoever. To their credit, when faced with an expensive and ruinous lawsuit over a new artist’s biggest hit, Sam Smith and his co-writers folded like a lawn chair or like me at a Texas Hold’em competition.
I must admit, though, that the argument that the borrowing was inadvertent need not be a ridiculous cop-out. As someone who has written my fair share of (thankfully obscure) lyrics, I can speak here from personal experience. At the tender age of fourteen, I once wrote a song lyric about love at the beginning of my thus-far ill-fated avocation as a romantic poet called “Hold Me In Your Loving Arms.” While the verse was fairly unmemorable (I have long since forgotten it), the chorus itself was hooky and I still sing it from time to time (for example, as I have written this entry). Several years after writing the song, though, I was sitting in a barber shop and happened to hear “Sentimental Lady” by former Fleetwood Mac member Bob Welch playing, and to my horror I realized that I had inadvertently lifted my hooky chorus from his song, particularly the part that goes: “Sentimental, gentle wind / Blowing through my life again.” Had my song been released and achieved any degree of popularity, I too would have had to pay up to someone for inadvertently being inspired to write by a song I had heard and half-forgotten, except for the hook. As someone who listens to a lot of music, it is very easy to hear songs only once and to only remember the hooks, and then months or years later to have those hooks reappear as if they were somewhat original, until one bothers to hunt down exactly where one heard it last.
Perhaps the best place to conclude this rumination is on the subject of inspiration and originality. Precious few of our works are original , and most of those things that have no inspiration whatsoever or no historical connection to anything that exists are not very good at all. Most of that which is pleasant and useful has already been done in some way by someone else, and while it may be combined or adapted in ways that are novel, a great many paths have been laid out already and it is difficult to be entirely different from anyone that has come before with no influence whatsoever. Nor is it necessarily desirable to live without being influenced by others or by the past—there is too much that needs to be done for us to reinvent the wheel by ourselves when we can adapt what we appreciate from others and appropriate it in our own lives. I happen to be proud that Tom Petty has been an influence on me—my first ever solo vocal performance (at least that I can remember) was a rendition of his song “Walls #9” (which appeared in the soundtrack to She’s The One”) which I sang for a church variety show as a teenager. Nor am I generally shy about admitting my influence from those around me whose thoughts and words and behavior have sparked my own reflections, or from books that have prompted me to think, or those aspects of life that have inspired great feeling from me. If we have any share of greatness, that greatness comes in large part from being moved and influenced by what is great. We should not therefore be ashamed to pay whatever debts, monetary or otherwise, are due from that influence.
 See, for example: