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Tom Petty's Estate Won't Back Down From Going After People Who Use His Music

Grunge 11/21/2022 William Kennedy
Tom Petty © Gary Gershoff/Getty Images Tom Petty

Regardless of where the candidate lands on the political spectrum, rallies and advertising are an important part of the election cycle when anyone runs for office. No rally or TV ad would be complete, though, without rousing music, or better still, a popular song that an audience will quickly recognize. The fact of the matter is, though, politicians — or anyone else, really — can't just use a copyrighted piece of music in an ad or at a large-scale public gathering without paying the composer for the rights or at the very least asking their permission.

With that in mind, history is littered with examples of musicians pushing back on politicians who co-opt a song without asking, or who hold political views with which the artist would rather not be associated, as USA Today explains. When that happens, representatives of the musician often fall back on copyright law for redress, or simply issue a cease and desist letter to settle things. After the 2024 midterms, for example, the estate of late songwriter Tom Petty tweeted a statement that condemned the use of Petty's 1989 hit "I Won't Back Down" in one failed gubernatorial campaign.

Petty Protects His Property

Sam Smith © Jaguar PS/Shutterstock Sam Smith

This wasn't the first time Petty's song "I Won't Back Down" was at the center of a copyright disagreement. Before Petty died, it was pointed out that the chorus to pop singer Sam Smith's smith hit "Stay With Me" shared a striking similarity to the melody of Petty's song. In that case, Smith agreed to list both Petty and Jeff Lynne, who together wrote "I Won't Back Down" as "Stay with Me" co-writers according to Rolling Stone.

Though Petty seemed quick to draw the line when the creative similarities in the music were pointed out, he also graciously accepted Smith's co-songwriting offer. In a statement released after the two camps reached their agreement, Petty said, "About the Sam Smith thing. Let me say I have never had any hard feelings toward Sam ... 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" (via Rolling Stone). According to Petty's statement, he also never intended to take Smith to court.

'I Won't Back Down' Was Used In A Kari Lake TV Ad

Kari Lake © Bloomberg/Getty Images Kari Lake

In the case of the brewing Petty estate feud with Lake, Petty's song "I Won't Back Down" — often used as anthem of persistence and renewal — provided the soundtrack to a Kari Lake TV ad the former GOP Arizona gubernatorial candidate released after her loss to Democrat Katie Hobbes. According to the Petty estate tweet, Lake's organization failed to ask permission or seek a license to legally do so, and as a result, they were seeking legal options to stop its use by the campaign and to prevent it from happening again, based on Billboard reporting.

"The Tom Petty estate and our partners were shocked to find out that Tom's song 'I Won't Back Down' was stolen and used without permission or a license to promote Kari Lake's failed campaign," the tweet read. "This is illegal ... We are exploring all of our legal options to stop this unauthorized use," and to prohibit future misappropriations of Petty's anthem," the Petty estate tweet continued. In 2020, the Petty estate also clapped back at former President Donald Trump when he used the same tune at one of his campaign rallies. With that, the Petty estate joins a long list of other well-known musicians who cried foul when Trump used their song without first paying or asking.

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