As news reports suggest, intellectual property disputes are not only common, but slow and expensive to resolve. Fierce competition in the mobile-phone market, for example, has contributed to epic, long-lasting patent battles between companies such as Apple, Samsung, and Motorola. That’s why in 2015, news that musicians Tom Petty and Sam Smith settled a copyright negotiation through quick and amicable dealmaking was such a welcome surprise.
The song “Stay with Me,” Smith’s first release from his debut album, became an instant hit in mid-2014. The gospel-tinged ballad was credited to Smith and his cowriters James Napier and William Phillips, though some listeners thought the song’s melody bore an uncanny resemblance to classic rocker Tom Petty’s 1989 hit “I Won’t Back Down.”
Apparently Petty and his cowriter on the song, Jeff Lynne, did as well. Their publishers contacted the publishers of “Stay with Me,” noting the similarities between the two songs, the Wall Street Journal reports.
By October, Smith and Petty had reached agreement on the matter, though the news didn’t break until this January 2015. Under the deal, Petty and Lynne were given a 12.5% writing credit on “Stay with Me” and the same proportion of the song’s royalties.
“After [the resemblance] was pointed out to Sam’s camp, they didn’t try to fight it and amicably dished out royalties,” a source close to the case told the website Consequence of Sound. “It wasn’t a deliberate thing, musicians are just inspired by other artists and Sam and his team were quick to hold up their hand when it was officially flagged.” According to the source, copyright negotiations were conducted “behind closed doors without any mud being slung.”
Indeed, in a statement, Smith’s representative said that the writers of “Stay with Me” had not been familiar with “I Won’t Back Down”—a plausible claim, given that Smith himself was born three years after the song was released—but acknowledged the similarity between the two songs. Calling the likeness “a complete coincidence,” the rep said that “all involved came to an immediate and amicable agreement.”
Petty soon released a similarly friendly statement as well, saying that he had “never had any hard feelings toward Sam.” Petty continued: “All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement.”
In February, “Stay With Me,” which sold four million copies worldwide, won Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the 2015 Grammy Awards. Petty and Lynne were not eligible for the awards but were due to receive certificates honoring their contributions to the song.
What allowed this copyright negotiation to conclude with a minimum of rancor when so many others escalate into mutually destructive lawsuits?
Here are a few characteristics that led to the type of no muss, no fuss dealmaking that you may aspire to in your own business deals:
1. A non combative approach.
As they approached Smith and his team, Petty and his team worked to set a respectful and civil atmosphere. “The word lawsuit was never even said and was never my intention,” the rocker said in his statement after the fact. By approaching the case as a copyright negotiation rather than making threats, Petty fostered a problem-solving approach that reduced the likelihood of a defensive reaction.
2. Strong evidence.
Few could have argued that Petty’s case was spurious: Parts of the two songs overlap note for note. Even as his team made his argument respectfully, Petty had the weight of evidence on his side.
3. A clear precedent.
Out-of-court agreements to share songwriting credits have become “the acceptable way of making a potential copyright headache go away” in the music industry, according to the Wall Street Journal. The Flaming Lips, Verve, and the Rolling Stones have all settled disputes in this manner. Parties may be able to avoid conflict and engage in successful dealmaking when a clear precedent for agreement exists.
4. A respect for privacy.
Because of the potential embarrassment to Smith of settling and admitting to copyright infringement, it appears Petty and his team attempted to keep the business negotiation as private as possible. “How [the story] got out to the press is beyond Sam and myself,” he later said. By recognizing intangible issues that your counterpart is likely to value, you can win their trust and cooperation.
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