[Readers of these pages know that I often cover stories about accusations of plagiarism when it comes to songwriting. Troy from Sydney, Australia, remind us of a sad case involving Men at Work that ended in tragedy.]
I listen to your program on Spotify and I live in Sydney, Australia. I recently listened to your podcast ‘Unfortunate Sonic Coincidences.’ I absolutely agree with you regarding the ridiculous litigation which have come about through not just the ‘perceived’ similarity between songs but when one new artist essentially plays homage to a predecessor, a ‘tipping of the hat’ which then turns from being a mark or respect, to becoming a financially costly black mark. I wanted to mention a famous case in Australia of this, just in case you didn’t know about it.
Australian band Men at Work were sued in relation to their famous 1980s song ‘Down Under,’ which, as you know, is about a young man travelling the world and people talking to him and making fun of iconic Australian things.
There is a flute riff in the song which runs only to a few bars but which references a very famous Australian children’s song from the 1930s called ‘Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree’.
The video even had the flute player, Greg Ham, sitting in a gum tree while he played the riff – not very subtle. The flute riff and its reference to this old children’s song about a famous type of Australian bird were brilliant and fitted in well with the song – it wasn’t trying to steal the previous writers work, but rather acknowledge it as a famous part of Australian culture, a song all kids used to learn at school.
The song was a massive hit and no one ever took issue with it, not even the original songs writer who died in about 1990. It wasn’t until 2008, when the new rights holder of ‘Kookaburra’ learnt of the connection that litigation began and Men at Work lost and had to share royalties with the new rights holder in 2009. It would be fair to say that most people regarded the lawsuit as being a desperate attempt to make money by the rights holder and unethical.
That is not the most tragic aspect of this case. The Men at Work band member who played the flute and came up with the tune and used the riff died in 2012. Greg Ham had been a long-time heroin user it seems but became very depressed after being found to have plagiarized the song and died of a heroin overdose.