Down Under, the '80s smash hit about a land where ‘beer does flow and men chunder (vomit)', has earned millions of dollars for Men At Work and their record labels.
But its distinctive flute riff was plagiarised from an Australian folk tune composed for a Girl Guides competition 75 years ago, a court in Sydney has ruled.
The Supreme Court found the riff was unmistakably similar to the four-bar children's song Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree, penned by Melbourne teacher Marion Sinclair, and now owned by publishers Larrikin Music.
The judge ordered Down Under’s writers, Colin Hay and Ron Strykert, and the band's labels, EMI and Sony BMG, to pay compensation and back royalties to Larrikin.
Lawyers said that the sums could run into millions of dollars. Down Under, which has become an unofficial Australian anthem, sold millions of copies around the world after being released in 1983.
The theme tune of the Australian yachting team which won the America's Cup that year, it featured in the closing ceremony of the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Adam Simpson, Larrikin's lawyer, hailed the ruling as “a big win for the underdog”, and said the publisher would be seeking up to 60% of the song's earnings.
Hay, Men At Work's lead singer, said that the judgment had “some pretty serious financial repercussions”. The parties will return to court later to discuss costs.
Down Under and the album Business As Usual topped the British, Australian and American charts in early 1983.
Hay didn’t deny that the band's flautist, Greg Ham, used two bars from the campfire favourite about the native Australian bird. However, he said that they were added after the original song had been composed. “I'll go to my grave knowing Down Under is an original piece of work,” he said.
Experts said yesterday that the ruling could have repercussions for music copyright law.