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 Mar 2009 @ 6:35pm

    Re: Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

    Ahh, so this is an argument? And here I thought we were having a discussion!
    If you are indeed arguing, though, perhaps we ought to be clear whether you are commenting on the case suggested by the page's headline, or upon hypothetical musings of your own regarding which laws you'd like to change, and then I'd know what it is you wish to argue about.
    Sorry if you feel I wasn't saying anything, but in fact my comment was a comment upon nothing really being said, ie "I'm interested in better laws".
    I was commenting on the case itself; the subject area of "what I'd like the law" to be is a different matter and certainly will not impact the this case.
    That's what I meant by the futility of such criteria. Where the law can and can't loom into ridiculous extremes is based more on reality and actual cases than mere hypotheses. There is a difference between the two.

    Well, I am still here, so let's talk about "the real points" then:


    "Strongly disagree that there "has to be a certain point at which one composer is protected." Protected from what?"
    - Well, from being ripped off and having their work exploited of course! Hence the point of copyright law in the first place.


    "What does this have to do with copyright?"
    - If copyright isn't there to award the ownership and control of a work to an artist or his / her representatives, why do you think it exists?
    Without that, there would be no protection of a work from such appropriation and / or misppropriation, an artist would no longer be able to create professionally (one needs the financial fruits of one's labors - and, inherently, the ownership of such) for fiscal survival) and -
    as a result of such a financial lack of respect for the artist and therefore the arts - much great art would not happen.
    If the Rolling Stones had had to record and gig inbetween, say, driving cabs to get by, their careers would undoubtedly have been different, their output forcibly diminished.
    The modern musical world would be a different - and drearier - place because of it.
    If Picasso hadn't had time to paint, how much of his art would have come to fruition?
    When Paul McCartney releases an album, people buy it because his track record is great. Because they know who he is.
    Not because he's rich, but because his - yes, protected - body of work has resulted in his being "a name" - because he's built a REPUTATION.
    Hence "promoting the progress of science and the useful arts". And this does include past body of work. Sir Paul deserves to be known as the guy who wrote "Yesterday", rather than as one of the people who did a song like that, which easily could have been the case without his comosition being protected by copyright.
    Unfortunately, not everyone views art in correct historical chronological order. Not everyone even realizes who did it first. We see examples of this all the time, but thankfully a composition itself IS a protected work.



    "Copyright is not about protecting reputations"
    - Let me refer to the Berne Convention, with which the US aligned itself on Oct 31st 1988:
    Here is the US article on Sec.3:

    "Sec. 3. Construction of the Berne Convention.

    (a) Relationship With Domestic Law. - The provisions of the Berne Convention -

    (1) shall be given effect under title 17, as amended by this Act, and any other relevant provision of Federal or State law, including the common law; and

    (2) shall not be enforceable in any action brought pursuant to the provisions of the Berne Convention itself.

    (b) Certain Rights Not Affected. - The provisions of the Berne Convention, the adherence of the United States thereto, and satisfaction of United States obligations thereunder, do not expand or reduce any right of an author of a work, whether claimed under Federal, State, or the common law -

    (1) to claim authorship of the work; or

    (2) to object to any distortion, mutilation, or other modification of, or other derogatory action in relation to, the work, that would prejudice the author's honor or reputation."

    Hmm, there it is: "the author's honor or reputation".

    Do I need to say more?



    "Once something is in the public domain, you can do what you want with it, without giving any credit."
    - True. But Joe Satriani's composition isn't in the public domain. In many years time, with his honor and reputation intact, it's fair game. Right now, legally and morally, it isn't.
    On the subject of "attribution", if that's the key - if that's "what's important" - then it really isn't about the money, is it? But obviously to an artist in the midst of an active career in the arts, money is a factor.
    And if someone else is making a LOT of money without attributing to you what belongs to you, then of course the money issue relates the the injustice.
    Are we talking about whether it's the number one issue or whether it's an issue at all? And, as I said, part of Satriani's lawyer's stance may be based on previous communications with Coldplay's lawyers.
    Again, we don't know those circumstances.


    "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."
    - It's more than "nice" - such matters, whether you acknowledge it or not, are often the driving force for artists' wish to retain proper credit for their work.
    Not to say financial issues don't matter, but it doesn't have to be one or the other, both issues can come into play. And if an artist's "artistic peace of mind" drives him/her to invoke the legal ramifications of copying, then it's entirely relevant to a copyright case.


    "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."
    - Is that a comment on Satriani's legal action, or on Coldplay's violation? Using the law to stand up for yourself isn't really "abusing" and "twisting" it in the way that looking for loopholes so you might get away with something is.


    "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."
    - I doubt that the legal teams - and judges - invloved in such cases have somehow missed the point and that you have answers they never thought of, to be honest.


    " 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."
    - "Promoting the progress" often hinges on the artist's rights, reputation and many other factors involved in assembling an overall succesful and important artistic career. It seems US law DOES realize this. "Not natural rights" is your opinion, not the legal actuality.
    Did I miss the term "economic incentive" in the US Copyright law or is that your own editorial insertion?


    "If copyright were about "protecting the rights of an artist," why is there a public domain?"
    - I'll answer that with a question, if I may: Why is no work by a LIVING composer in the public domain?

    "No one is suggesting that attribution alone is a business model. But, for an artist, having your work recognized is key to paying the bills."
    - I agree with this statement of yours from that other article. So how is that "clearly" not what I'm talking about? The composer retaining the right to say what he does or doesn't want done with his creations is surely a key issue in this.
    Here is the statement I made to which you pointed that accusation:
    "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."
    That results in proper attribution and "paying the bills" ie proper financial recompense. Where is your contention with this?


    "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.
    - Permission intrinsically hinges on credit. To be in a position to grant permission does mean you are inherently given your fair credit as originator of the work. Yes, small independent acts need to get permission too. It's part of the law.
    Even an amateur performance in a small village is subject to the law, though these are never really upheld because the composer's rights and, yes, repuation as creator of the work are not substantially jeopardized. Now, if the performer were to claim credit him or herself - and make millions doing so - it'd be a different matter.
    And it is.


    "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."
    - Cover versions and remakes give the proper credit to the original. What don't you understand about this?


    "(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."
    - I've studied Shakespeare at a post-grad level and performed Shakespeare professionally as an actor in the UK for six years. Yes, I've read him.
    it cannot be accurately proved how much he borrowed, how much of it would have been in the public domain at his time, or if he'd have granted attribution were it necessary.


    "(3) Again, talk about subjectivity: define "sufficiently different as to be deemed original.""
    - It's for a court to decide. In general terms, to the point where it no longer becomes quickly recognized as the original melody. It's why musicologists and laymen both are often utilized in cases like this.


    "(4) What's wrong with creating things that aren't original anyways? That's often how we learn to create, by imitating."
    - Nothing wrong with it at all. Just be honest and give credit where it belongs. Yes, both morally/artistically and financially, insomuch as is appropriate for the given situation.


    It is a matter of opinion how you take Lewis' comment. To me it seems he is talking about the creative spark -
    not trying merely to deliberately do something different, but to be honest to oneself and get on with the business of creating.
    That's different from post-creation editing: if you end up with too many similarities to something which someone else did, you can change a few things and retain your creative honesty.
    I don't think for a moment he is saying "go ahead and rip people off"! I wonder what he'd have said if someone copied essential parts of his books too closely? Or if his name were omitted from a remake of "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe"?
    All that is aside from the fact that CS Lewis is not the first person one thinks of when looking for someone really qualified to comment on the state of the music industry in 2009.

    "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 have to disagree. Creativity is simply not that fragile to a true artist. To deny that the lack of a cheap "fallback" is incentive to find original sounds, styles and statements is to fail to understand the creative process itself.
    I agree with Mr. Geoff Taylor - the Chief Executive of the BPI (That's the British Phonographic Industry - a not inconsiderable representative organization), when he says, "Copyright stimulates investment in musical talent and encourages innovation."
    I reckon he knows a thing or two about the music business, too.
    Also British Minister for Culture Andy Burnham, when he says, "It's only right that someone who created or contributed to something of real value gets to benefit for the full course of their life,"
    as well as when he states that, "There is a moral case for performers benefiting from their work throughout their entire lifetime." That latter quote, incidentally, was from the UK Music Creators' Conference in London.
    I'm not sure how less democratic countries view the issues, but I know that Soviet Russia did indeed offer their composers less personal protection and credit. Perhaps that kind of approach would fit in with your idea of "better laws" than those of America?
    What is it that makes you think the vast number of important and educated people in our society who do realize the importance of artistic respect and recompense somehow "miss the intent of copyright law"?


    You keep throwing around the phrase "independent creation", but you are missing an extremely important and relevant factor:
    Copying, under US law, is proved by ONE OF TWO forms of evidence.
    The first is "Direct Evidence", where it can be proven that active and intentional copying took place. But, of course, it doesn't end there.
    The second is "Circumstantial Evidence" which hinges on TWO factors:
    (a) Access to the original work and
    (b) Degree of similarity to the original work.
    Additionally, as I mentioned previously, since it is a combination of those two factors, the greater the similarity, the less the need to prove access.
    That issue, however, is not a problem here.
    Access is PROVED by the fact that the original composition was available worldwide through a major record label. That's easily enough evidence in this case.
    This fact utterly negates the effectiveness and relevance of any attempt at an "independent creation" defence.
    We aren't talking about an unknown, unavailable, obscure work, but something that was most definitely "out there".
    When the factor of such access to the work creates such strong circumstantial evidence, a claim of "independent creation" would make for a pretty quick trial!
    In a situation such as this, it's no realistic legal defence at all.

    You see, though there are indeed differences in the details of Patent Law and Music Copyright (in no small part due to the nature of "industrial secrets" et al), the bottom line - the end result -
    is quite comparable indeed. A filed patent and a released recording of a composition both prove ownership of the idea itself and offer the owner of said intellectual property the opportunity for both recognition and reward.
    Some prize one over the other, that's their human right to do so. But both are important and of relevance in a society which respects the arts themsleves.
    In actuality, copyright of a composition lasts far longer than ownership of the patent itself for an invention, for quite a few reasons.
    But the similarities hinge upon the reality that once ownership is legally established, anything which infringes upon its intellectual property rights is in violation.
    And it's certainly not "flat out wrong" to point out this matter of fact.

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