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. icon
    Blaise Alleyne (profile), 7 Mar 2009 @ 1:20pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Sorry, GK, for taking so long to respond, it's been a long month. Hopefully you're still around to respond!

    I think it's noble of you to be interested in "better laws", Blaise, though that is an EXTREMELY subjective definition, isn't it? Your idea of "better laws", I suspect, mightn't concur with mine (judging by your latest post, anyway), so I do think that, while we all may hope to bend the law to suit our own opinions, ultimately that's a rather futile criteria for discussion.

    You're not saying anything here. My "better laws" comment was just to clarify that I wasn't solely describing the legal realities, but talking about other possibilities. Of course "better" can be subjective, but that's what we're arguing about.

    Personally and professionally, I think the middle ground this law particular law oversees is pretty much the best compromise we can hope for to protect composers and artists without getting silly about it.

    ... and not "getting silly about it" isn't "futile criteria for discussion?"

    Anyways, onto the real points!

    Composers' reputations are built upon people's opinions of their work. To me it's no wonder they do all they can to defend it. I suppose that encompasses both Satriani's AND Coldplay's stances, one crying foul with the other in a state of denial. Public opinion, both present and future, are surely factoring into this situation. Clearly, there HAS to be a certain point at which one composer is protected.

    Strongly disagree that there "has to be a certain point at which one composer is protected." Protected from what? What does this have to do with copyright? Copyright is not about protecting reputations, and reputations can be harmed or upheld without it. Once something is in the public domain, you can do what you want with it, without giving any credit.

    If people look down upon passing someone else's work off as one's own, we're talking about plagiarism, not copyright. And reputations can be held or harmed without copyright law. Attribution is what's relevant there.

    But the legal aggression in the "any and all" demand, unfortunately, is where lawyers generally start in cases like this. Perhaps the initial cold reaction led to this? I can't really say, I don't have that information. But I can speculate that, in that same situation, I'd probably start there and hope to reach a compromise eventually.

    "Any and all profits" is a pretty stiff starting point, and lawyers don't always start there. In the Dibango lawsuit against Jackson and Rihanna, his lawyers asked for €500,000, not "any and all profits." At best, this is a bad PR move by Satriani's lawyers. Otherwise, some might be tempted to say that part of this is certainly about the money.

    If Joe Satriani is legally recognized to have created that melody, then (a) that information will be available to anyone wondering about it at ANY time in the future...

    And what if Coldplay came up with it independently, but because of the legal realities, are forced to settle? What about their reputation? And, often these settlement cases involve money, but no admission of guilt.

    (b) Satriani's own personal, artistic peace of mind... would, certainly to some extent, be achieved. That satisfaction may be of real importance to him.

    That's nice if it's important to him, but "artistic peace of mind" is not important for copyright law. Copying is.

    A case, perhaps, of standing up for what he believed was right. If no-one cared enough to do that regarding things they hold dear, the world would be a far sorrier place.

    The world would also be a far sorrier place if people constantly abuse the law and twist it for their own ends. This is not what copyright law is about.

    Sorry, Blaise, that's merely your opinion and I'm afraid I can't agree that it's not about respect and legacy. In all arts, a huge number of artists certainly do care about this, from novelists to musicians, screenwriters to poets, actors to painters. It is the driving force for many and laws designed to protect their rights do not do that unless they protect their name, reputation and body of work. Again, I must say I am glad that the law DOES in large part protect these things.

    If it's about respect and legacy for people now, that's because they don't understand the real intent of copyright law. That's why they file lawsuits like this. The constitutional basis for copyright is not at all about "protecting" anyone's rights? What rights? The rights granted by copyright law are artificial and temporary, there are not natural rights. It's about an economic incentive, "promoting the progress."

    If copyright were about "protecting the rights of an artist," why is there a public domain?

    [How does it promote progress?] I'll answer that in four words: Credit where credit's due. That may not be enough for you, but it's enough for me and a great many others

    That's plenty enough for me, but clearly not what you're talking about.

    Later, you say:

    if a song is built around another composer's work, that composer (through his publishing company) must grant rights and the subsequent song must be approved, often by the composer him/herself.

    Copyright isn't about credit, it's about permission. You don't honestly believe that (assuming Coldplay copied the melody), if Coldplay had approached Satriani for permission to use the melody, he'd have said, "sure -- just credit me!" You said "the subsequent song must be approved" and that often royalties are split. It's not just about "credit where credit's due."

    It's about permission, and licensing, and money. Because copyright is an economic incentive.

    And what if it was some small independent artist, what means would they have of getting permission? They probably wouldn't create or would be forced to create something different, because they wouldn't be able to get permission or afford the risk of a lawsuit.

    If it were just about credit and attribution, trust me, I'd probably be pretty happy.

    I can add that it is in the interests of creativity and the arts in general for musicians (and those in other arts) to reach a bit further, try a bit harder and think a bit more in order to create something sufficiently different as to be deemed original, even compared to previous works by others.

    That's just ridiculous. (1) How many films put out by big content companies or remakes of old films, or books turned into movies? How many cover songs have there been? These build on previous works. Copyright is about permission, and thus, usually licensing. (2) Read much Shakespeare? How much did he borrow from others? He'd have been in violation of copyright law, were the works he build off under copyright. (3) Again, talk about subjectivity: define "sufficiently different as to be deemed original." (4) What's wrong with creating things that aren't original anyways? That's often how we learn to create, by imitating.

    I tend to agree with C.S. Lewis: "Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it."

    The Satriani/Coldplay lawsuit seems to be an example of how copyright discourages many forms of creation. To be focused on "originality, respect and legacy" is to (a) miss the intent of copyright law, and (b) encourage artist to file and worry about lawsuits like this, rather than to create art.

    I think it would be a far greater problem if anyone could use anything of anyone else's they liked and be utterly excused simply by claiming ignorance. That, to me, would be a completely unacceptable state of affairs.

    I don't. First of all, unless a work was fairly different from the one it allegedly copied from, a claim of ignorance wouldn't even be believable. And if it's that different, that a claim of ignorance might actually be true, that seems to be a pretty strong argument for fair use, in terms of a derivative work being transformative. So, even if it was a derivative work, it would likely be fair use. And if it wasn't actually a derivative, copyright law has no place regulating it anyways. I don't share your concerns.

    To settle and honestly say that they didn't mean to get too close to his song, but do recognize and honour the achievements of a fellow pro...

    (1) What doesn't being a "pro" have to do with it (except for highlighting the point that it's near impossible for "amateurs" to create in the same way because of copyright)? (2) What's wrong with being "too close" if they didn't copy? How many songs use the same chord progression, or similar melodies?

    I do believe they accidentally created something uncomfortably similar, but, as with patent laws, if I invented something but someone beat me to it, that's my tough luck, isn't it?

    It is flat out wrong to compare copyright law to patent law in this respect. The lack of a defence of independent creation is one of the biggest differences between copyright and patent law (and, I would argue, problems). If you're talking about independent creation as infringement, you are simply not talking about copyright law.

    True, it's not about intending to create something similar, so it may have been accidental copying, but unless it was copying, it's not copyright infringement.

    I do believe they were not consciously aware of the infringement itself, though I also believe the likelihood of one of them hearing the tune somewhere and "regurgitating" it later cannot rightly be discounted - or disproved.

    Then, it seems to be that the argument of unconscious copying is a serious problem with copyright law, because it undermines the important and essential defense of independent creation.

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