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Big Ruling Down Under: Men At Work Must Pay for Song

By Tanya Roth, Esq. on February 09, 2010 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

And they say the '60's were crazy. So how is it that during the trillion times the mega-hit Land Down Under by the Australian group Men At Work was played during the '80's nobody noticed that the central flute riff in the song sounded suspiciously like the Aussie "folk" favorite Kookaburra? Really, what were we all doing? 

Digressions aside, CNN reports that this little lapse was not noticed even by the plaintiffs, until it became part of a question on the Aussie quiz show "Spicks & Specks," which pointed out the similarities in 2007. The show inevitably led to the lawsuit, which lea to this post on the decision. After a 3 year fight, a federal court in Australia has ruled against favorite sons Men At Work saying they plagiarized one portion of the Kookaburra tune and will now owe some of their royalties to the publishing group who bought the rights to that song in 1990.

First though, CNN notes that the Kookuburra folk song was actually penned by school teacher Marion Sinclair who later entered it into a competition run by the Girl Guides (same as our favorite cookie pushers, the Girl Scouts, in the U.S.) Association of Victoria. Cute origin, but not terribly authentic as folk songs go. The rights to the song were purchased by Larrikin Publishing after Sinclair's death in 1988.

According to CNN, the court documents reflect that band member Greg Ham added in the contested riff to Colin Hay's song after joining the group in 1979. Ham admitted that he likely had heard Sinclair's song while attending school in the 1950's.

A key part of Judge Peter Jacobsen decision is that he did not find the flute riff to be "a substantial part of Down Under or that it is the 'hook' of that song." This is an important finding, as it limits the amount of royalties the band will have to share with Larrikin Publishing. The plaintiffs are looking to receive from 40 to 60 percent of the royalties earned by the song in Australia during the last six years, the time limit imposed by Australian law.

CNN reports EMI Songs Australia and EMI Music Publishing are considering appealing the ruling. Another hearing will be held in the next six months to determine royalties owed.

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