Is it Tom Petty or isn’t it?

That’s what pop fans have been wondering about a new B.F. Goodrich Co. tire commercial that aired briefly before it was ordered off the air by a federal judge Wednesday.

The 30-second TV ad features a vocalist who sounds remarkably like Petty, singing “Baby Has Got Something New,” a jingle celebrating one of the firm’s new tire brands.

Petty’s management got a U.S. District Court judge to issue a temporary restraining order requiring the tire company to pull its current campaign on the grounds that it represents a copyright infringement of a similar Petty song, “Mary’s New Car.”

“They are very, very much alike . . . in a number of ways. The words are alike. The music is alike. The tempo is alike,” Judge Spencer Letts said in granting Petty the order he sought in a $1-million lawsuit.

“I first saw the commercial during a Lakers game telecast last weekend,” said Tony Dimitriades, Petty’s manager. “I’d already heard about the ad, but I still couldn’t believe what they’d done. It’s a total rip-off.


“They’ve used a Tom Petty sound-alike to do the song. The melody is almost identical and the voice is practically the same too. Tom’s made up his mind to try to stop these guys. It’s unconscionable for these people to try to fool the public into believing that this commercial is something that it’s not.”

Petty and his management were particularly incensed because they claim that a representative of Grey Advertising, the firm handling the B. F. Goodrich account, approached the pop star last year seeking permission to use the same song in an upcoming ad campaign.

“We turned them down--we told them absolutely no,” Dimitriades said. “And now they come back and do an ad we feel is based on the same song. We turned down a substantial sum of money to not be associated with B. F. Goodrich. But now they’re doing it anyway, which we feel represents an element of deception. We feel that the pop artist should have the right to draw the line as to where his voice or likeness is used for commercial purposes.”

Dorothy Greenberg, an exec at Grey Advertising, acknowledged that the firm, which represents such corporate heavyweights as Mitsubishi, had initially approached Petty’s management with a request to use “Mary’s New Car.” She also confirmed that “they didn’t want to let us use the song.” However, she said she had “just returned from vacation” and had not heard the ad and had no knowledge of any dispute over the song. Pop Eye attempted to contact other account execs at Grey, who did not return our calls.

How similar are the two songs? According to Irwin Coster, a veteran musicologist hired by Petty’s management to analyze the tunes, the songs have “similar” instrumentation, voice and lyrics. He added: “The lyrics (to the B. F. Goodrich jingle) are basically derived from Tom Petty’s song, ‘Mary’s New Car.’ The rhythmic pattern of both compositions . . . is basically the same.”

You be the judge. Here’s the first verse of Petty’s song:

Mary’s got a brand new car,

Mary’s got a brand new set of wheels,

And we wanna go where she goes,

we want to listen to the radio

The opening of the B. F. Goodrich ad goes:

Baby has got something new,

baby has got a brand new set of shoes,

And we wanna go where she goes,

so we’re getting Goodrich to radial

It has become increasingly popular for advertising campaigns to use pop music to help sell products. Ford’s Mercury auto division recently bought the rights to numerous old Motown songs, which they have re-recorded for use in automobile ads, while the California Raisin Advisory Board uses a new recording of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” in its current TV ads.

However, other firms have created sound-alike versions of popular songs, apparently without requesting permission. And the Chrysler Corp., when it was unable to obtain the rights to Bruce Springsteen’s hit, “Born in the U.S.A.,” eventually crafted a “Born in America” jingle which evoked a similar mood to sell the firm’s new line of trucks.

Pop artists do often lend their names or images to corporations as part of endorsement or tour-sponsorship packages. Petty, for example, has participated in tour-sponsorship arrangements with Levi’s and Tecate Beer. But he has never endorsed a product or allowed any firms to sell products with his songs, as Michael Jackson does with Pepsi Corp.

“The artist’s copyright is one of the few things he has which has any tangible worth,” Dimitriades explained. “And we feel Tom’s been wronged here. We just don’t think that B.F. Goodrich, or any other company, should be able to get away with it.”