Joe Satriani Sues Coldplay For Copyright Infringement

from the name-that-tune dept

Guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani has sued Coldplay for copyright infringement over claims that their hit single, Viva La Vida, used "substantial original portions" of his song If I Could Fly from 2004, seeking damages for "any and all profits." The lawsuit has been filed in Los Angeles federal court. Call me a skeptic, but it was just back in June when we wrote about a band called Creaky Boards making a similar claim. The difference is that the Creaky Boards didn't sue. They made a cheeky video and used the opportunity to get some attention (also, later retracting the statement after Coldplay refuted it). However, one notable difference here is that Coldplay was very unlikely to have heard the Creaky Boards song, while Joe Satriani is well known, especially among guitarists. When you listen to this clip, the melodies are certainly very similar:

But does that mean it was copied? Most people's knee-jerk reaction is to assume it must have been, but here's an idea: Creaky Boards, Coldplay and Joe Satriani all have a similar melody over a similar chord sequence. When Coldplay responded to Creaky Boards, Chris Martin called it a "simple coincidence." Is it not plausible that it's just a somewhat natural melody to sing over those chords? You can't copyright a chord sequence. If you search YouTube for these sorts of claims, you quickly realize that a lot of songs sound the same. Some cases are blatant infringement, but for most, there are only so many notes in a scale...

Chris Martin has said: "We're definitely good, but I don't think you can say we're that original. I regard us as being incredibly good plagiarists." I bet he wishes he hadn't said that now, but to what extent is that true about all of our ideas? Isn't a certain element of "plagiarism" a natural part of the creative process? Where's the line between plagiarism and inspiration? Of course, trying to pass someone's work off as your own is bad because it's dishonest and you aren't giving proper credit, and your reputation will likely suffer for it if someone finds out. But even if Coldplay did get the melody from Satriani (whether consciously or unconsciously), how much damage have they done? If you listen to the theme of Satriani's song and the verse of Coldplay's, the melodies are very similar, but the songs in their entirety are very different. Coldplay takes the song in a completely different direction in the chorus, while that melody is Satriani's chorus. Coldplay's song has lyrics, Satriani's is instrumental. They appeal to different audiences, they're very different songs. Even if it is an case of infringement, how significant is it?

That's saying little about the legal realities though. It's bound to be a sticky issue in court. Coldplay will likely claim independent creation to try and clear their name (unless they did blatantly rip it off, in which case they might look for a settlement). How do you prove whether or not someone came up with a melody independently? How many notes or rhythms need to be similar to prove that one melody is a derivative of another? This is going to be an interesting case to watch.

Filed Under: coldplay, copyright, joe satriani, music

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  1. identicon
    GK, 11 Feb 2009 @ 8:12pm


    There are a lot of misunderstandings about music theory and copyright law on here. I am in the music publishing business and my company deals with these issues on a regular basis.
    To claim that proof of "copying" is required rather than a simple factual illustration of overt similarity to an existing, legally copyrighted work is simply not true.
    When a work is copyrighted, it is in a condition of artistic and legal existence and any similarities which are overt can indeed infringe that copyright. Intent is not the issue in a case of infringement. The intervallic melody - and specifically the melody against those harmonies - was enough to seal the case against George Harrison, a case in which the judge even stated during closing that he did not believe Mr. Harrison consciously appropriated the 3-note melody in question, but that he had nevertheless used a melody which already belonged to someone else. The law hasn't changed in any substantial way on this issue. The Maj7-Octave-6th (becoming 5th of the following chord) - or, for classical folk, leading note-tonic-submediant of the initial subdominant chord (becoming dominant of the dominant chord) - is probably enough to make this a simple case. The key or complete chord sequence is not the issue, it is the appearance of THOSE notes upon THOSE harmonies.
    Access to the track is inherently proved by "Is There Love In Space" being on general release and therefore potentially accessible to anyone. Mr. Satriani's lawyer's will not need to prove Coldplay listened to his track, just that they conceivably were able to. After all, one cannot disprove beyond reasonable doubt that one was never aware of a work one could feasibly have been aware of.
    Copyright law exists to allow artists, writers and composers fair recompense and recognition for their work. If the law allowed all to freely steal such intellectual and artistic properties without consequence, nobody would reasonably be able to build a career out of being a creative artist and the world would be a far poorer place for it. Nobody in ANY job would think it fair to see someone else achieve recognition and financial reward for a job they had actually done and an achievement that truly belonged to them. A composer's compositions ARE their work. To claim that coyright law is "out of whack" is utterly ludicrous.

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