Cat Stevens Claims Coldplay's 'Viva La Vida' Was Copied From His Song, Not Satriani's

from the hey,-the-lineup's-over-there dept

When guitarist Joe Satriani sued Coldplay for copyright infringement last December, Techdirt readers were quick to point out lots of other songs that sound similar (a great example of the importance of the conversation). Keyz noted that both songs sound a lot like a 1973 Cat Stevens tune.

Guess who else noticed?

Cat Stevens (whose name is now Yusuf Islam) has accused Coldplay of copying his melody from the “Foreigner Suite” (feel free to compare). He told the U. K. Sun, “there’s been this argument about Coldplay stealing this melody from Joe Satriani, but, if you listen to it, it’s mine! It’s the Foreigner Suite, it is!” He claimed that his decision whether or not to pursue this legally will “depend on how well Satriani does” (this wouldn’t be the first such lawsuit from Islam).

The problem is, once you think about this for 6-8 seconds (the length of the melody in question)… it’s just insane. Is Islam threatening Satriani too? If Coldplay used his melody, isn’t Satriani also guilty? Does Satriani still feel that dagger through his heart if the melody wasn’t even “his” to begin with? What about the Creaky Boards, who also claimed the song as theirs a year ago? What about all the other songs that sound similar — Pounding (Doves), J’en Ai Marre (Alizee), Honesty (Billy Joel), Frances Limon (Enanitos Verdes), Hearts (Marty Balin)? At what point does it become obvious that it’s more likely that no copying took place than that everyone is guilty of plagiarism? If anything, this accusation strengthens Coldplay’s claim that this was just a coincidence.

A cynic might assume these are just blatant money grabs or publicity stunts; Satriani is demanding “any and all profits,” Islam is waiting to see how well Satriani does and the accusation comes the day before his latest album release. Also, a cynical approach would explain why Islam seems to be threatening Coldplay instead of Satriani (hint: which song has made more money?), unless Islam’s just letting Satriani do all the work and planning to lay claim on whatever he captures. Unfortunately, I think there may be a little honesty (no, not the Billy Joel song…) to Satriani’s “dagger to the heart” comment and Islam’s exclamation of “it’s mine!” (my precious…). The success of “Viva La Vida” has provided the incentive to actually make these accusations real, but they do seem to be rooted in some sense of actually feeling wronged; these artists really seem to believe some sort of injustice has occurred, that no one else would have come up with the same few notes over the same few chords except by “stealing” from them. Of all people, musicians ought to know there are only so many ways to combine chords. Worrying about who came up with the idea “first” is yet another case of favoring invention over innovation, of giving a rather meaningless importance to chronology when it’s really the way in which people connect with the art that’s most important.

There have been successful copyright infringement lawsuits over melodies in the past, but I’m not sure that there has been such a high profile case like this with multiple people claiming infringement. Hopefully, the overlapping accusations of plagiarism backfire and actually suggest there was no wrongdoing so that a silly and complex web-of-royalties scenario is avoided for what was most likely independent creation. Here’s to hoping that another two or three artists add to the chorus of accusations, further demonstrating how ridiculous this all is!

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Comments on “Cat Stevens Claims Coldplay's 'Viva La Vida' Was Copied From His Song, Not Satriani's”

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yozoo says:

Really Sad

“they do seem to be rooted in some sense of actually feeling wronged; these artists really seem to believe some sort of injustice has occurred, that no one else would have come up with the same few notes over the same few chords except by “stealing” from them. Of all people, musicians ought to know there are only so many ways to combine chords.”

Really as musicians they should both know that this particular musical “idea” may very well have been influenced by them, just as the work they did was influenced by others. Its not really a conscious thing and its about as far from “stealing” as just about anything I can imagine.

RD says:

This is just

This is just a simple chord progression, used by MANY MANY songs over the last 5 decades. In music, particularly pop/rock music, there are certain chord progressions that are pleasing to the ear, and some that arent, which most musicians avoid. You cant just string any old 5 or 6 chord melody together and have it sound good. There are a limited number of them that will work, without sounding jarring or discordant. Within that, you will hear many similar chord progressions in many songs (with a few minor variations), because thats what sounds good. To claim copyright on this is absurd, because of the limited amount of chord progressions that could possibly be made. IF this were possible, then all one has to do is lock up all possible chord progressions and bam! no one can ever use them again and all of music would grind to a halt. But thats 21st century big business copyright control for you.

Steven says:

Re: Re: This is just

I wonder how many permutations there are of cord progressions. My son has a poster on his wall with all the guitar chords. I could probably write a program that would create mp3 files of all possible permutations of those chords over a limited number of bars (just 4/4 to keep it somewhat small). Maybe I should create them all and publish them.

And for the slashdot crowd.
1. Generate all chord progressions
2. publish
3. ???

Steven says:

Re: Re: Re:2 This is just

Can’t really be that bad though. There are certainly some rules that cover the common cases (otherwise we wouldn’t see so much collision in the real world).

This almost seems like a partial game tree search problem. The trick would be to understand what makes a chord progression sound good (not a small feat). Even if incredibly large you could build up a rather impressive ‘library’ over time.

PT (profile) says:

Re: Yusuf

Too right his time passed, right about the time I saw the creep on TV sitting near a pile of burning books, calling for Salman Rushdie to be murdered. In f*king England, too, not the Northwest Frontier.

I’m surprised he’s dirtying his hands with infidel law – I would have expected him to invoke Sharia law on Coldplay and demand to have their hands cut off. But of course that wouldn’t get him any filthy infidel cash.

RD says:

“A whole lot. Infinite, actually, since there isn’t a limit on the number of measures in a song, and the number of chords per measure, or the number of times each chord is repeated before going to the next one in the progression.”

Erm…thats called a scale…

All music is based on melodies, which are smaller, repeating sections of music that sometimes vary slightly from measure to measure. These melodies by definition have a finite amount of chords in their structure. Within that, there are only so many chord structures that are going to sound good, or alternatively, that most musicians will use. Sure, you CAN have a much larger amount of POSSIBLE chord progressions, but in practical terms, its actually pretty limited as to what people will actually use. Anything else (the “infinite” you refer to) would be nothing more than constantly changing chords with no fixed melodies, and no one is interested in making music like that, as no one wants to listen to random chords (see ANY child experimenting with any instrument, ever).

refe (profile) says:

All songwriters copy.

I remember an interview with the guitarist of a band that was popular for a while (can’t remember who it was) who said “good guitarists borrow, great guitarists steal.” He then went on to say how he had taken the guitar riff in their current single directly from a Bjork vocal melody. That’s just how songwriting works. This is all nonsense.

Hulser says:

Re: All songwriters copy.

Whoever that guitarist was he “stole” that quote from T.S. Elliot. Can you say irony?

Here’s the full quote from the poet, which is amazingly appropriate to the situation at hand and to the general topic of asinine applications of copyright.

“One of the surest tests [of the superiority or inferiority of a poet] is the way in which a poet borrows. Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.”
– T.S. Elliot

yozoo says:

Re: Re: All songwriters copy.

“Whoever that guitarist was he “stole” that quote from T.S. Elliot. Can you say irony?”

Yeah I agree with you guys, this is what I was trying to say earlier as well. Musicians (as I assume most artists are) are the result of their influences. There is no Satriani without John McLaughlin and no McLaughlin without Chet Atkins no Chet without Charlie Christian, on and on. What makes this particular situation especially disappointing is both these guys are accomplished enough musicians to know this (certainly Satriani is). Everything both these guys have ever created was made up largely of ideas they got other places, not consciously, not by stealing, but through the basic personally subjective learning of whats pleasing and whats not. This lawsuit is not only ridiculous because of its merits, it’s also disappointing because of its plaintiff (who should know the difference).

Stephen says:

I listened to the links provided. Satriani’s has some of the musical tricks that Cat Stevens always used and should be sued for the $0.20 profits he made.

Coldplay’s song isn’t anywhere nearly as close to either of them.

Reminds me of the Isaac Asimov story where every possible combination of notes has been used and copyrighted.

How hard would it be to capture every permutation of 30sec (is 15sec enough) of music and play it to a small audience that votes. At some threshold, you keep the piece and start searching for anyone who uses it in the future and sue them.

I think I’ll patent that business process now.

Anonymous Coward says:

For some reason the Vanilla Ice/Queen/David Bowie debacle keeps coming into my head whenever this coldplay/satriani/islam crap pops up.

I keep remembering an interview with Vanilla Ice where they asked if he “borrowed” the base line to the Queen song.

Ice said, “No way, if you listen very carefully, their song goes ‘bum bum bum bumbumbum…..’ while ours goes “bum bum bum bumbumbum…..tic!’ The whole damn thing was just ridiculous, much like this lawsuit.

And finally, there are no original chord progressions or songs left:

mark Rosedale (profile) says:

Not Plagiarism

So when I was in grad school (music major) I was taking a composition class. A friend of mine was in the class with me. He decided to play his composition for me. When he first started playing I immediately liked it, well he played to an abrupt stop simply because he hadn’t dictated the rest of it. When he stopped I finished the phrase for him. He yelled out, “How did you know?” Then it hit me that it was a song we both knew. I played him the recording and he had dictated it almost exactly verbatim.

Now of course this was absolutely plagiarism, but it was quite unintended. He of course changed his tune, but I think this illustrates something. His subconscious assimilated that tune and out it came. Until I pointed out the original he had no idea that he was literal plagiarizing the tune. But this is pretty much how all composition work. It might be a fragment of a melody or a chord progression, but usually it is not an asserted effort to plagiarize, but rather a natural subconscious happening. I can’t tell you the number of times I start humming what I think is going to be a lovely new melody to suddenly break out in the song with which it was inspired.

DS says:

Clap Clap Clap…

Not for what you’re thinking, but by finding a ligit excuse to link to Alizee…. Well played…

But eh, they’re all just a ripoff of the Fairy Theme from Zelda… you all know it’s true…

In all honesty, this reminds me of an old (early 90’s) sci-fi short story that came up with the scenario that Chess is no longer a game that can be played by grand masters, because every single game of chess has been played.

Gerk (user link) says:

Look out Oasis

I don’t think they ever wrote a melody of their own .. they stole pretty much everything from the Beatles. If things start to go down this path then musicas an artform is really in trouble (not to mention photography and video as well). I can see it now, statements like “Hey, I took a picture like that 20 years ago, I’m going to sue you,” or “I setup a shot just like that in 1974 for a documentary, I’m going to sue you.”

In an interview with Nuno Bettencourt (from Extreme) in Guitar Player magazine years ago I remember him saying something that really stuck with me all these years. It was along the lines of “There hasn’t been a truly original melody written in a long time, the greats all wrote them centuries ago. All we do now is interpret them in our own form.”

Chuck Julian (profile) says:

Cat Stevens authorship

Cat Stevens should not be complaining about his perceived copyright infringement. Cat Stevens took the music for Morning is Broken from copyrighted and published music from Lewellyn Gomer aka Professor Gomer LL. Jones of Michigan State University. Stevens not only took this tune which was originally a Welsh folk tune and called it his own, he also used Dr. Jones’s musical arrangement. Dr. Jones didn’t sue because he couldn’t afford to. Stevens used the arrangement note for note, not just something that sounded like it. He never credited Jones or the Welsh tune.

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