Australia's "Down Under" band rapped for plagiarism

Thu Feb 4, 2010 1:10am EST
 
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By Rob Taylor

CANBERRA (Reuters Life!) - Australian Grammy-award winning band Men at Work may have to pay millions of dollars in compensation after a court ruled a section of the famous 1980s hit, "Down Under," was plundered from a popular folk song.

"Down Under" has become a de facto anthem for Australians and was a hit in the U.S. charts, with quirky lyrics about vegemite spread and drugged travelers in a "fried-out Kombie, on a hippie trail, head full of zombie."

But Australia's Federal Court ruled on Thursday that part of the song's melody came from the children's ditty "Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree," written 70 years ago by Australian teacher Marion Sinclair for a Girl Guides competition.

"In my opinion, there is a sufficient degree of objective similarity between the bars of "Kookaburra" which are seen and heard in "Down Under" to amount to a reproduction of a part of Miss Sinclair's round," the judge wrote in his decision.

The ruling means Men at Work songwriters Colin Hay and Ron Strykert, as well as their music company EMI, may have to pay millions of dollars in unpaid royalties to Kookaburra copyright owners Larrikin Music, who launched the legal case.

Men at Work are the only Australian band to have a No.1 album and single simultaneously in U.S. charts with "Down Under" and the album "Business as Usual."

The song, about a land Down Under "where beer does flow and men chunder," was used as a motivator for Australia's 1983 America's Cup yachting victory in the United States. The song won a Grammy for best new artist the same year.

The judge ordered both sides to enter mediation on royalty payments and reappear in court on February 25 to discuss whether Larrikin should receive compensation from Hay and Strykert.

"It's a big win for the underdog," Larrikin lawyer Adam Simpson reportedly told reporters outside the Sydney court.

(Editing by Miral Fahmy)