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Trouble ‘Down Under’

After the Kenny Rogers reference the other day, plus this next item, it must be oldie moldie week around here…

If you listened to popular music back in the early to mid-1980s, you couldn’t avoid the band Men at Work. They burst on the U.S. scene in 1982 with their smash album, “Business as Usual.”

They were a bunch of goofy, fun-loving Aussies, or at least the music videos in heavy rotation on MTV would have you believe. This was, of course, when MTV still played music videos. “Who Can it Be Now?” went to number one, followed by “Down Under,” which also topped the charts. The band won the Grammy for Best New Artist in 1983 and scored more hits with their second album, “Cargo.” They broke up in the mid-1980s.

Let’s go back to “Down Under.” This is the song that introduced the U.S. to vegemite and a bunch of other colorful Australian idioms. The video was a fun romp in the wilds of the country. And in the middle of it, band member Greg Ham sits in a tree and plays a flute riff that sounds kind of like the old Aussie nursery rhyme and folksong, “Kookabura.” (“Kookaburra sits in the old gum tree…”)

Flash forward to 2007. On an Aussie game show, panelists were asked to name “what song can be heard in the middle of” Men at Work’s nationalistic anthem?

According to CNN, the publishing company that owned the rights to “Kookaburra” woke up, sensed plagiarism and filed suit against Ham and Colin Hay, who cowrote the song, demanding part of the profits from the hit single. Earlier this week, an Australian judge found in favor of the publishers. But he said the “flute riff” was not part of the “hook” in the tune, he found, a ruling that likely will limit their damages. Apparently these are legal terms in Australia.

While the publishing company may be entitled to some royalties, they aren’t going to seek money made outside of Australia, and they’re limited to money made in the last six years under Australian law. So unless someone puts “Down Under” on a really hot ’80s compilation, their victory won’t count for much.

By the way, a kookaburra is a kind of bird (see photo).

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