Brow Beat

The Real Reason People Keep Plagiarizing Tom Petty

Tom Petty performs during halftime at Super Bowl XLII.

Photo by TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP/Getty Images

Tom Petty’s copyright settlement with Sam Smith, announced Monday, marks at least the third time that Petty has heard similarities between his own songs and more recent hits by other artists. I think there’s a reason this keeps happening to Petty in particular: His music is so simple that a song can hardly play with the building blocks of rock ‘n’ roll without evoking a Petty hit.

To be clear, I am a lifelong Petty fan, and I think the virtues of simplicity in any art form far outweigh the downsides. My dispute is with artists who claim ownership over the very paints that everyone else has on their own palettes. You can’t use Prussian blue man, that’s Bob Ross’ jam!

The one-note guitar riff that the Strokes supposedly stole from Petty’s “American Girl” in their breakthrough hit “Last Nite” is the musical equivalent of carbon—an element of the universe, hardly something you can copyright. Even if the Strokes were consciously inspired by Petty’s song, you wouldn’t call me a plagiarist if I began a poem with the word “Hark!” because I liked how it worked in “Beowulf.”

Come to think of it, Petty is more like a musical Mark Rothko, in that he usually paints with only a few big splotches of solid color. Just because he’s famous for doing it, does that really mean nobody else is allowed to?

There are only a few ways you can arrange horizontal bars of blue on a canvas, just as there are only a few ways you can arrange basic major and minor triads into a three-chord riff. It doesn’t take a thousand monkeys typing at a thousand typewriters for a thousand years to duplicate the “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” riff, as Red Hot Chili Peppers did with “Dani California.”

Now, as Vulture’s David Marchese notes, Petty was actually fine with the RHCP and Strokes incidents, it was his fans who cried foul. So what made TP’s publisher sic the lawyers on poor, sullen Smith?

I’ll admit that the chorus melody of Smith’s “Stay With Me” does share more than a few consecutive notes with the verse melody from Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” But a key factor to consider is that the line is the result of a musical “sequence.” That’s when one little bit of melodic material, called a “motive,” is immediately repeated, but transposed to a different pitch level. “Well I know what’s right” is Petty’s motive, which he repeats in sequence as “I’ve got just one life.” For Smith, it’s “Won’t you stay with me,” followed by “‘Cause you’re all I need” in sequence.

So really, all we’re talking about is the motive itself, and that’s just “Mi Sol La Sol Mi,” for you solfège singers out there. A lot more songwriters are going to owe points to Tom Petty if he in fact “owns” that simple figure, much less the idea of transposing it around in sequence.

Yes, I’ve seen the incriminating mash-up that digitally alters the tempo and key of the two songs to make them match and then layers them on top of each other. But man, I could find you a lot of songs that would be similarly simpatico with a few tweaks.

This is rock ‘n’ roll we’re talking about. It’s not that there’s only one way to rock, as Sammy Hagar once asserted—but the ways are finite.