I’ve spent way too much time this morning thinking about this. Up until yesterday, I had no idea who Sam Smith was, or what his song in question was. Before you start jumping on my case that I live under a rock, don’t, I’m well aware. I’m trying to not live under a rock. But I’m really bad at listening to the radio, and I don’t really watch TV because I don’t have cable so I live online. It’s really easy to be selective when you do that, because there’s SO MUCH SHIT. I promise I’ll try harder from now on, because it’s just as important, as a music artist, to be aware of the contemporary popular pulse, as well as the lesser known murmur of the independent and “unknown” artists.
Okay, so now that that’s out of the way, let’s talk about this. I thought that if I listened to each song over and over again, and if I obnoxiously sang one song over the other, I would have gotten some sort of divine insight into the situation. Not true at all.
I love Tom Petty. Like, I’m pretty sure I’m absolutely in love with his music. I want to marry his music and have its babies, etc. But when I heard he was suing another artist over copyright infringement, I reacted, “Okay, let’s hear this other song.”
I’m not an idiot. I can hear the same chord progressions with the chorus, just as I’m sure Smith and his people heard. That, however, is not my issue. I don’t hear Petty’s song in Smith’s. One does not remind me of the other. It’s not like the obvious, and also hilarious Vanilla Ice debacle with “Ice, Ice Baby.” Smith was clearly not trying to imitate the sound of Petty’s song. They emotionally sound different. The only thing that’s the same, is that little fucking chord progression that is used to emphasize parts of their songs.
So my question, ultimately, is: what made them decide that this particular chord progression was Tom Petty’s? Or, was there something else that made them decide that I just can’t see?
Every chord, and every progression has already been written. Not only that, but basically every rock song ever uses the same three chords.
I’m not a copyright lawyer, but it fascinates me. It also terrifies me because there is no clear law on the subject. I think we’re getting closer to having clearer laws on it, but we’re not quite there. Because of this, every lawsuit varies in the judgement. There are plenty of “Sam Smiths” that win.
Several years ago, I released the copyright to a song of mine on an artist website (the owner of the site owns the copyright now). I loved that song. Everyone loved hearing it at shows. You could say it was my “coffeehouse hit.” But, after playing it for years, and nothing really happening with it, I decided to release it to the world. Someone else can create with it. They can do whatever they want with it. Maybe they will make it weirder, or prettier. I don’t know, but what I did know at the time, was that art is made to go into the world and inspire other art.
I don’t think artists should take advantage of other artists. If you worked hard on something, someone shouldn’t be allowed to steal it from you. I understand that. I got super pissy when someone didn’t credit footage I shot that they used in their film in a film class I took. However, I think the game of claims on music is a bit out of control. I already think copyright is held way too long (it used to be 28 years, now it’s over 70!) and that inhibits the creative flow.
For the record, I think both songs are quite lovely. And I honestly don’t know what the “right” answer is. Perhaps there is none.
So basically, Tom Petty, I hope you know what you’re doing.
Until next time.