Whose Line Is It Anyway?
In the midst of the lawsuit between Marvin Gaye’s estate and Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams (trial scheduled for February 10, 2015), Sam Smith and Tom Petty have amicably resolved a similar issue. Gaye’s family accused Thicke and Williams of stealing parts of Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” for their own song, “Blurred Lines.” Tom Petty, however, characterized Sam Smith’s melody in his Grammy-winning hit “Stay With Me” as “coincidentally” similar to that of his own 1989 song “I Won’t Back Down.” According to Petty, the word “lawsuit” was never uttered nor came to his attention, and the pair have since agreed that Petty will receive songwriting royalties and a 12.5% writing credit. However, Petty is not entitled to any of the shares from Smith’s four Grammy wins since Petty’s work is considered to have been interpolated rather than having done new work on the song.
This is not a new concept for entertainment law. After all, how many variations on only thirteen notes are there? Beyonce, Jay-Z, Katy Perry, Eminem, and countless other big time names have been sued for as little as a single “oh” in common with another’s own tune. What is notable about this instance is the professionalism between the parties to handle the dispute without hostility and in a timely manner. The dispute was handled in its entirety “immediately.” Furthermore, Petty was able to recognize that some parts of songs—substantial or not, deliberately or non-deliberately—get incorporated into others’. He and his legal team took a relatively unprecedented and fresh approach to getting the recognition he deserved in a civil and collegial manner that rewarded Petty fairly and allowed Smith to gracefully promote his song. Hopefully, the entertainment industry can use this instance as an example of how to resolve these kinds of issues because it is not clear that these disputes will ever cease. Petty admitted in his autobiography that even he has found himself writing his songs while (consciously or unconsciously) channeling other’s songs.
The entertainment industry is replete with opportunities for copyright and trademark infringement—it is virtually unavoidable. Yet, the way this case was handled illustrated a precedent that the industry may wish to look to emulate. Parties can reach an amicable agreement without public attention and potential embarrassment. The media is quick to jump on any drama or dispute without hesitation when it comes to celebrities and their private matters. Petty released a statement including his shock that the dispute even reached the public. Moreover, these settlements avoid clogging the courts with disputes that are seemingly easily resolved otherwise—an ever-present motivation for the courts. The entertainment industry should look to Smith and Petty for how best to proceed—even if the dispute concerns more than just a chorus melody.