Sam Smith, Tom Petty, and Copyright Extortion

In 2014 Sam Smith released his worldwide hit “Stay With Me“, which has sold nearly 3.5 million copies to date, and won for song of the year at the 57th Annual Grammy Awards. Nearly nine months after the song’s release Sam Smith gave songwriting credit and 25% of all royalty earnings surrounding the song to Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne. But why?

Sam Smith Tom PettyUnder copyright law independent creation of a new work is not infringement, no matter how similar the new work is to a pre-existing original. This means that if I happen to create a song that sounds identical to an existing song, but their similarities are pure coincidence then copyright law has not been violated. In this case Sam Smith’s “Stay With Me” sounds similar to Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down” (1989) though Sam Smith says, “It was a complete accident. I am 22 years old… I’ve never listened to that song.” This seems like a pretty clear case of coincidental likeness, more than it does an illegal act of copying. So why would Sam Smith’s label agree to list Tom Petty as a songwriter of “Stay With Me” and give him potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars? Most likely this was a pure business decision where the costs of paying off Tom Petty are wegihed against the cost of litigation in court. Even if Sam Smith could win the case in front of judge, taking a case like this to trial may cost much more in legal fees and PR energy than it would to simply settle with Tom Petty out of court. Tom Petty has rebutted reports that he is simply shaking down Sam Smith by saying “the word lawsuit was never even said and was never my intention”.

Sadly the situation is so obvious to all partys involved that “the word lawsuit” doesn’t even have to be said.

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Before Iggy Azalea There Was Blondie and Madonna

I recently wrote about white appropriation in hop hop and it’s relation to some recent events involving Macklemore and Iggy Azalea. Today, I came across two interesting video clips involving Blondie and Madonna that continue that conversation.

The first video includes Blondie talking about her song Rapture. In the second video music label executive Seymore Stein talks about how he marketed Madonna as a black woman on her first single “Everybody” (cover art below, listen).

The two videos come from a NOVA/BCC TV documentary series “Rock and Roll: The Perfect Beat”. I won’t go into an extended analysis but these videos at least offer more examples of how white musicians, and music labels, have interacted with black music.

*This post has got me thinking and working on resolving the cognitive dissonance around encouraging the right to freely remix/sample, and discouraging cultural appropriation.

A Tale of Two White Rappers and Racial Injustice in America

The story of cultural appropriation in the United States is a long one. The story of racial inequality and of white privilege in the United States is even longer. Many people have called for a “national discussion on race” but where is such a discussion supposed to start. Concepts like racism are difficult to talk about in the abstract, while specific events are always diluted by a confluence of facts that make up any particular case. But the conversation has to start somewhere.

I’m a white person and a huge fan of hip hop. Recently a discussion about white appropriation has been re-ignited within the hip hop community. While pieces of this discussion involve personal feuds (aka rap beef) the larger series of events serve as an interesting look into how race and white privilege play out in the real world.

XXL Freshman Class 2012

XXL-Freshmen-2012 In 2012 hip hop magazine XXL released their annual freshman class edition, an issue that showcases up and comping hip hop artists. Among the 10 artists featured that year were Macklemore and Iggy Azalea. Iggy Azalea, a then 21 year old Australian, wasn’t chosen to be on XXL‘s coveted cover by the staff outright, but instead won a people’s choice vote held on the magazine’s website. Iggy who had released her first mixtape/EP only six months earlier also happened to be the first female MC to be featured in an XXL freshman class.

Meanwhile another young hip hop artist, Azealia Banks, took to twitter to criticize Iggy Azelea for calling herself a “runaway slave master” in one of her lyrics. read more