There's Only So Many Ways To Combine Chords...

from the so-stop-worrying-about-copying dept

The whole Coldplay/Joe Satriani copyright fight is pretty silly for a a variety of reasons. Yes, there are some similarities, but there's a ton of stuff in music that sounds the same. There's a great chapter in James Boyle's The Public Domain all about Ray Charles' song I Got A Woman, where Boyle goes back in time to show how Charles' song basically copies from a few others (in some cases rather blatantly) in order to effectively invent soul music. Then he moves forward and looks at how others have built off of Charle's song as well. You can read the whole chapter (and, indeed, the whole book) online. The chapter in question is Chapter 6: I Got a Mashup.

Then, of course, many folks have seen the comedian who points out how many songs are based on the same basic progression as Pachelbel's Canon in D:


Along those lines, reader Bill Squire has sent in this similar video about how many songs use the same basic chord progression as Journey's Don't Stop Believing:
And yet, now some people are worried that one musician has come up with a similar song?


Reader Comments (rss)

(Flattened / Threaded)

  1.  
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    SteveD, Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 8:00am

    Pop music chords

    Another similar example was put together by Marc Hirsh in his study of the 'Sensitive Female Chord Progression', looking at how a set of chords tend to get reused within a certain sort of song.

    Link: http://www.boston.com/ae/music/articles/2008/12/31/striking_a_chord/

    All this strongly supports the 'Lessig Remix' perspective on the creation of culture; how even what many people perceive as original content is in some way built on the work of those who went before them.

    But the strange thing is that music critics have always accused pop artists for borrowing from classical music to create catchy tunes, yet no one ever accuses these artists of not creating original works. Presumably this is because much of classical music falls under copyright.

     

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    DG Lewis, Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 8:20am

    Two words:

     

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  3.  
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    Esteban El Guapo, Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 8:45am

    Re: Two words:

    Beat me to the punch. The story has two good lessons for lawmakers, one about copyright and also the one unbreakable rule of politics: always stay bribed.

     

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  4.  
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    Duane (profile), Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 8:50am

    Re: Two words:

    Amen. This is a story that should be required reading for all politicians before they offer an opinion on copyright. I know it's science fiction, but I don't know for how much longer...

     

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  5.  
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    ScaredOfTheMan, Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 8:53am

    You just made my day

    HAhahaha Mike this is awesome!

    Should be required listening for any copyright jury, or any house committee on copyright reform!

    - Still smiling!

     

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  6.  
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    Pitabred, Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 8:55am

    Grammar?

    Sorry to be a nazi, but... "There Is Only So Many Ways To Combine Chords" is the title? Really?

     

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  7.  
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    Jeff, Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 9:02am

    sad, this is wrong.

    Mike, this is one of the few you're way off on. MANY songs have similar chord progressions - they don't call a genre 3-chord rock for nothing.

    But this suit involves two songs that are note-for-note exact for bar after bar, and one was written right after the other was released. I love your articles. But in a rare event, your analysis here is not even relevant.

    Saying there's not copyright infringement because more than one person does the pachelbel canon chord progression? Incredibly weak argument.

     

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    johnny, Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 9:10am

    Steve Allen (boy, am I old) used to do a routine on his talk show where an audience member would call out 3 or 4 numbers from 1 to 7 (representing the chords A,B,C,D,E,F,G)that he would use to compose a tune on the fly.

    .... and from wikipedia....

    Allen was an accomplished composer who wrote over 10,000 songs. In one famous stunt, he made a bet with singer-songwriter Frankie Laine that he could write 50 songs a day for a week. Composing on public display in the window of a Hollywood music store, Allen met the quota, winning $1,000 from Laine.

    So.... there is a high probability that Allen has unintentionally come up with the same chord "patterns" as someone else.

     

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  9.  
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    Anon2, Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 9:44am

    As Jeff points out, it's about far more than just chord progression -- and in this particular case it's about not just chords plus melody, but pretty much every aspect of the song, from the rhythm, bass line and time signature to the lead guitar lines. Combine that with timing, and it at least raises a question.

    I think the laws should be interpreted a bit more loosely in terms of artists riffing off each other, whether it's remixes, mash-ups, samples, or new interpretations of previously published, recorded or performed musical works. But I'm not so sure it's a good idea to strip away all protections, that should be up to each individual artist to decide. In the long run, it may well be that the artists who adopt more liberal stances on what subsequent artists can do with their works will do better by one measure or another, or it may not. But allowing the market to decide by having multiple systems for allocation of rights in artistic creations seems to me to be the best way to go about it, rather than just tearing everything down. That's what's going on in the open-source software movement, I don't see why the approach should be any different when it comes to music.

     

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    Comboman, Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 10:01am

    Re: Grammar?

     

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    Moderation, Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 10:08am

    Anon2... but the songs are completely different.

     

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    Moderation, Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 10:10am

    Ooops

    Back to Anon2's post.

    I's like me writing a book about a boy wizard... or a short children's book about a cat that lives in a hat.

    Just because two works have similar themes, or lyrics, or melodies, or what not, does not mean that one is COPIED from the other.

     

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    Nick, Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 10:12am

    I'm not inclined to immediately say infringement in situations like this. We are talking about a group of very talented people here that probably produce a lot of material over time, even if it doesn't end up on the albums. I'm sure in some ways there is crossover in other artists that they listen to and were influenced by so why wouldn't that possibly lead them to come up with similar ideas sooner or later at least a couple times.

    I can give you two examples from personal experience how such a thing is possible.

    Many years ago a very good friend of mine came up with a guitar riff that we jammed to, it was pretty badass. About a year and a half later Megadeth released a making of video for their album Youthanasia that had a short clip of Dave Mustaine playing a riff that was almost exactly the same as the riff my friend had come up with. That riff eventually was turned into the song Vortex off the Cryptic Writings album. Needless to say we were all pretty shocked when we first saw that clip but we also thought it was pretty awesome.

    Now, my friend was a HUGE fan of Mustaine, in fact Mustaine was/is his single biggest guitar playing influence. Sometimes you "channel" your influences and come up with the same thing.

    Another example is a song that a band I was in, wrote and played at shows, it was one of the crowd favorites to be sure. Again, roughly a year or so later Fear Factory released an album that had a song on it and that main guitar riff was EXACTLY the same. I mean it was almost uncanny. The song was Edgecrusher from their album Obsolete.

    Obviously there is no way in hell that we felt "ripped off" or anything. I mean, they were Megadeth and Fear Factory and we were playing shows in Northwest Wisconsin that maybe 30 people would show up for (if we were lucky).

    If nothing else it gave us a boost, made us think, "Damn, maybe we can write some cool songs after all."

    This is a bit longwinded perhaps but I'm just saying that influences intermingle, life experiences are shared or are similar, and that is bound to come out in the creative process. Sometimes it will be stunningly identical, sometimes it will only be vaguely similar. But it will happen from time to time.

     

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  14.  
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    Mike, Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 10:37am

    melodies, not chord progressions

    Obviously, there are chord progressions that are used over and over. Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry" has the same progression as The Beatles' "Let it Be." We could name songs ad nauseum.

    The issue here is not just with the chord progression, but also with the melody, rhythm, and pretty much everything else. There are infinite melodies that work with a given chord progression. Coldplay, unfortunately, chose to pick the exact same one as Joe Satriani.

    Interestingly enough, however slightly off-topic, a melody line from the John Williams inauguration song was exactly the same melody that Weezer used in a song off their new album, which was exactly the same as... an old Shaker hymn in the public domain.

     

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  15.  
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    Sam, Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 10:39am

    I guess this is why it's subjective...

    Jeff and Anon2 say that the songs "are note-for-note exact for bar after bar" and "but pretty much every aspect of the song, from the rhythm, bass line and time signature to the lead guitar lines."

    I've listened to the Satriani song, and apart from the one melody that's referenced in the popular YouTube comparison, "If I Could Fly" doesn't sound anything like "Viva La Vida" to me. The melody in reference does, sure, but it's maybe 20 seconds out of the Satriani song. Does that mean Coldplay *stole* it? On purpose? No, I don't think so, and I think that's Mike's point. It's similar but not the same, but you can show that many songs over the years are similar - but not the same. "My Sweet Lord", while again probably unintentional, is, to me, a direct rip-off of "He's So Fine". "If I Could Fly" *as a whole* isn't anything like "VLV" - to me. :)

     

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  16.  
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    James Keegan, Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 10:50am

    Rights

    Music copyright law is not based solely on chord progressions. If so the blues would be a legal mess (and even melody rules are bent in this genre). It is the chord progression, melody and rhythmic phrasing combined. The western world follows what is known as a 12 tone scale. Considering the length of time this scale has been used and the number of composers the world has seen, you are bound to get repetition. As a 30 year musician, I find common chord progressions daily and many similar melodies but the Coldplay/Satriani case is almost funny. If I were Joe Satriani, not only would I sue, but I would be making a big media fuss over it just to be as insulting as possible. Similar is one thing. The same is not only illegal but stupid.

    Be careful commenting on musical copyright law when you are neither an attorney nor a musician. It's much the same as me commenting on Quantum Physics. About all I could truthfully say is, "It's neat!" Beyond that, I don't understand it so how could I have an opinion on how it should be governed?

    This whole article is a case of another media type expressing his opinion on a topic he knows little to nothing about continuing the miseducation of his readers. Why are you even talking about musical copyright law on a Tech website?

    Until you have the legal or musical background, please stay out of my business.

     

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  17.  
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    Jerry in Detroit, Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 11:28am

    Silence

    Reminds me of those two fools a year or so ago. Both issued CDs at different times with silent tracks; literally a track with nothing in it. One sued the other because his silence was more profound and evocative than the other.

     

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  18.  
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    Mike (profile), Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 12:12pm

    Re: Rights

    Until you have the legal or musical background, please stay out of my business.

    Fair enough. Then until you have an economic, tech or business background, stay off my website.

    Sound dumb? Sure. It is. But it's no less dumb than what you just said. I am commenting on the overall economic impact of stupid laws and stupid business models. To say that only musicians or lawyers (i.e., those who unfairly benefit from such things) should be allowed to comment on it, rather than those who can take an impartial view of the *overall* impact of the actions is pretty silly, don't you think?

    Though, actually, given your earlier comment, you shouldn't answer that, since I'm guessing you're not trained in philosophy, right? So, philosophical questions must be off limits.

     

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  19.  
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    Phil Seymour, Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 1:17pm

    The famous 4

    In the 50's and 60's, we musicians called C-Am-F-G, the famous four. "26 miles across the sea..", "Oh Donna", and hundreds of others. The basic difference was the words. "Sincerely", "You Send Me", pretty much the same as 50 other songs at the time. No lawsuits.

    Music is a gift to be enjoyed.

    It's amazing how many songs you can play using C-Am-F-G. Try it. Write one of your own. Watch out for greedy, bean counters and lawyers.

     

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  20.  
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    Circle of Fifths, Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 1:59pm

    Has anyone here actually heard the two songs in question?

    I haven't. I'm not going to bother commenting on them.

    As for many other songs sounding the same -- I INVENTED the 12 BAR BLUES PROGRESSION, and the minor ginantonic scale. Do I look wealthy to you? Noooo...

     

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  21.  
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    RD, Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 3:43pm

    Re James Keegan

    "Until you have the legal or musical background, please stay out of my business."

    Until you have read the constitution and its 1st amendment, please stay out of MY business. One doesnt have to be qualified or a participant in the industry in the topic of an article to comment on it. Sorry, but I have every right to say what I want. You can dislike it, you can disagree, Mike can ban me (as its his site) but YOU dont get to tell ME (or anyone) that we cant comment on what we think is something stupid, or wrong. People call things like they see them. If you dont like that and think they dont have a right to do so, please see yourself post haste to the nearest airport or port of your choice and remove yourself from this country. The stench of your elitism and nazi-like commands is offensive and not needed.

     

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  22.  
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    Bill, Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 8:11pm

    Re: Rights

    > Until you have the legal or musical background,
    > please stay out of my business.

    Bzzt, wrong answer. Copyright is the business of everyone, not just the domain of elite musicians such as your esteemed self. What is written on this website and millions of others like it is all subject to "copyright." Grandma's recipes are subject to "copyright." The term paper I wrote for college is subject to "copyright." Fair use is subject to copyright and just happens to pertain to everyone.

    Get it?

    As to fair use, which means the guy buying your song, possibly Mike, has fair use rights and expectations on that work, which means you DO NOT have 100% control over the work once it is sold or released.

    BTW, I *am* a musician and a tech guy. Have a nice day.

     

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  23.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 23rd, 2009 @ 9:32pm

    Re: Re: Rights

    True, you are making comments in your area of expertise, but then use as an example a situation where an experienced musician is able to analyze the factual representations made by the adverse parties to the lawsuit.

    Perhaps, just perhaps, he does make a valid point that those who work in the musical field are the ones best positioned to analyze the facts and draw conclusions based on their analysis. It is analyses by those who are deemed experts in the field of music that will be relied upon by the judge and jury to make their decision.

    The fact you may consider them stupid laws and stupid business models will carry not a whit of weight in how the lawsuit is eventually resolved.

     

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  24.  
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    James Keegan, Jan 24th, 2009 @ 4:01am

    Rights

    Apparently I got your attention. My point is not to stifle your rights to speak freely, but to ask you and many others to think before you speak (or write). We are responsible for our words, especially in print. You are welcome to your opinion, of course and as this is your site (or you work for the company), you can print what you like. This is a fairly popular site and your opinion is read by a large number of people. You must assume that your opinion has an impact on others. To express an opinion on any subject of which you have limited knowledge is to potentially tell falsehoods. For instance:

    "The whole Coldplay/Joe Satriani copyright fight is pretty silly for a a variety of reasons."

    Do you know what constitutes a musical copyright infringement? If you have to look it up, you're too late. You should have known before you printed the opinion.

    If you know the law, do you know if Coldplay is guilty? You will have to have an education in music theory to answer this.

    As this song has sold millions of copies, what does Joe Satriani have to gain?

    "Nazi?" "Stench?" "Elitism?" Settle down kids! I'm just questioning the ethics of publishing an opinion based on a lack of information. I'm not questioning the legal aspects. Print away if you so desire! But at what cost?

    Oh, and I have read The Constitution. I am not Congress!

     

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  25.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 24th, 2009 @ 10:47am

    Re: Rights

    I have several decades of experience dealing with copyright issues, some of which involved matters such as this. If there is one thing I have learned it is that while I certainly understand the law, the law is applied against a factual backdrop, and that backdrop is determined by persons who are professionals in the field of music.

    It would be foolhardy for me to even attempt to form an opinion in this instance without the assistance of such professionals.

    Your points are well made.

     

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  26.  
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    RD, Jan 24th, 2009 @ 12:17pm

    Just not getting it, are we?

    "To express an opinion on any subject of which you have limited knowledge is to potentially tell falsehoods. For instance:

    "The whole Coldplay/Joe Satriani copyright fight is pretty silly for a a variety of reasons."

    Do you know what constitutes a musical copyright infringement? If you have to look it up, you're too late. You should have known before you printed the opinion."

    Bzzt! Wrong again. So glad you could play, but if you wish to try again, you might want to first understand that opinions dont require facts. It helps, to be sure, but anyone is free to state their opinion about something, and it doesnt require that they even know the topic, its an O-P-I-N-I-O-N. And you cant prevent someone from making a fool of themselves, if indeed thats how you see this, and you certainly cant stop someone from being WRONG. As you yourself are. See how the circle of life works? Remember, when you point an accusing finger, four (or three, if the thumb doesnt cooperate) more are pointing back at YOU!

     

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  27.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 25th, 2009 @ 9:42am

    Re: Just not getting it, are we?

    Of course people are free to express opinions, all the while woefully ignorant of any relevant fact. I just hope that these people are not of voting age.

     

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  28.  
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    fasat, Jan 26th, 2009 @ 10:16am

    Bad artists copy, good artists steal

     

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  29.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 27th, 2009 @ 6:25am

    Re: Re: Re: Rights

    Mike isn't really arguing one way or the other about how the lawsuit should be resolved from a musical or legal point of view. As he just stared, he's simply pointing out how this whole situation, in general, has negative economic impact.

    If it holds that everyone's worse off economically, it doesn't matter (for purposes of this discussion) how similar the songs are.

     

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  30.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 27th, 2009 @ 6:33am

    Re: Rights

    "The whole Coldplay/Joe Satriani copyright fight is pretty silly for a a variety of reasons."

    Do you know what constitutes a musical copyright infringement?

    If you know the law, do you know if Coldplay is guilty?


    I propose that the whole Coldplay/Satriani fight can be "pretty silly" for a variety of reasons despite the law or musical similarities. Is Coldplay stealing Satriani's fans? Are Coldplay fans going to fine the rest of Satriani's music complelling because one of his songs are mechanically similar to Coldplay's? Do either of them ever even compete for attention? What benefit is there to telling musicians that they can't just be creative, that they have to be careful that they don't sound too much like someone else? Why can't they just go about their business and serve their fans?

    You're arguing for what the law does say, but here on techDirt we're almost always talking about what the law should say.

     

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  31.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 27th, 2009 @ 6:35am

    Re: Re: Just not getting it, are we?

    If you labor under the delusion that even the plurality of voters are well-informed, or even marginally informed, I'm afraid you are terribly, terribly mistaken.

     

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  32.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 29th, 2009 @ 12:24pm

    Re: Re: Grammar?

    "There's" can mean "There is" or "There are"

    Not in proper English. The proper contraction for "there are" is "there're". Using "there's" in its place is an error in proper English (http://www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/there's.html) that is common amongst the less educated.

     

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  33.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 29th, 2009 @ 12:32pm

    Re: sad, this is wrong.

    "But this suit involves two songs that are note-for-note exact for bar after bar..."

    Kind of like Pachelbel's Canon in D?

    "...and one was written right after the other was released."

    "Right after" is a relative term. And what does that have to do with anything anyway?

    "Incredibly weak argument."

    You need to explain how rather than just declaring it so.

     

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  34.  
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    Anonymous Coward, Jan 29th, 2009 @ 12:48pm

    Re: Rights

    Apparently I got your attention.

    Offensive statements have a tendency to do that.

    My point is not to stifle your rights to speak freely...

    Oh really? That's sure what it sounded like. But now you seem to be changing your tune. Perhaps an apology would have been more in order. Here's another tune for you that as a musician perhaps you can understand: http://www.uffnet.com/kookkamp/backpedal-boogie.htm

     

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  35.  
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    Raybone, Jun 17th, 2009 @ 10:09pm

    James, youve swallowed your own hype

    It seems that you have grown a superior opinion of your self importance in the world as displayed by comments such as

    "Do you know what constitutes a musical copyright infringement?"

    This is a trick question as no one can definitively say what constitutes infringement without looking at every case individually. It is entirely subjective and debatable. Show me a law or judge's decision where it is written that if I copy this many notes, I am infringing....I'll wait.

    You follow with this asinine statement

    "If you know the law, do you know if Coldplay is guilty? You will have to have an education in music theory to answer this."

    Really? Ive got an above average education in music theory and I'm calling bullshit on that ridiculous statement. Pray tell what aspect of music theory training gives insight to whether Coldplay is guilty? Are you saying those uneducated in music theory cannot hear or understand whether a melody is similar or not? You attempt to make an understanding of music theory more than what it is. How pompous of you. BTW does being a session drummer qualify you to know what is infringement any more than Mike? If yes, how?

    Ultimately to me, you sound elitist when you write things like

    "To express an opinion on any subject of which you have limited knowledge is to potentially tell falsehoods."

    "but to ask you and many others to think before you speak (or write)."

    "Settle down kids!"

    You, since you hold a different opinion from others, arrogantly assume that the others have limited knowledge of the subject since if they knew as much as you, you golden boy, they would totally see as you do. This is insulting to any who have a brain and you knowingly wrote these statements to be so. You are a Dick.

    As a fellow musician you embarrass me when you pretend to represent musicians as a whole with "please stay out of my business "

    Music and legalities that touch it is everyone's business.

     

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  36.  
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    ronny, Jan 4th, 2010 @ 2:38pm

    songs a like

    that's what pisses me off about,
    george harrison.
    this is just a little drop!

     

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  37.  
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    Alexx, Jan 27th, 2010 @ 2:09pm

    Re: Re James Keegan

    I had to reply to your comment. While you brought up the 1st ammendment you directly tried to stifle this guys 1st amendment right.

    "but YOU dont get to tell ME (or anyone) that we cant comment on what we think is something stupid, or wrong"

    You hypocrite!
    You say "dont tell me not to speak" as you do just that and tell someone else they cant speak.

    In fact he CAN do just that. He can tell you whatever he wants.

    He can tell you to shut the fuck up and that your an idiot.

    See thats the beauty of "freedom of speech"

    ....that whole "free" part.

    He can say whatever the fuck he wants and if you dont like it then tough shit because you cant do a thing. He can say what he wants, just like you can.

    Its like you are trying to say that you are more deserving of free speech than he is. Your free speech is more valuable and therefor you want him to leave America?

     

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  38.  
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    Thomas, Oct 18th, 2013 @ 2:30am

    same chords, great video selection

    I obviously am late finding this article and the copyright issues discussed more than likely have already been resolved, but I found the two videos about songs having the same chords very informative and enjoyable.

    My website, Christian Music Chords features music chords from very popular worship songs. When listening to this genre of music there are similarities too.

    Thanks for the post... the comments were an interesting read too :)

     

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