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
    EP from Songzilla, 7 Dec 2008 @ 9:02am

    Sum of the Parts works better than division of the booty

    beware the "muse" in music

    If you ask creative people where their ideas come from, I bet in many cases they are not entirely sure. Perhaps you hear Joe Satriani playing in the background when you are out somewhere and it seeps into your subconscious. A month later you are in the studio, someone plays a simple set of chords, the sames chords Joe played over, and you start singing the Satriani melody. Standing on the shoulders of others applies beyond science.

    As far as guitarists, most, perhaps Joe Satriani excepted, steal 80% from other guitarists, in fact they teach each other their riffs.

    So how purely original is anyone's music?

    That said, these sound a bit too close, so I think they ought to work something out based on:

    -- Joe Satriani's melody is nice, but not rocket science or groundbreaking
    -- Coldplay is basically using the Joe Satriani melody
    -- They play different styles of music & appeal to two different audiences, so a sale of Cold Play's song does not preclude a sale of Joe Satriani's song
    -- Coldplay has a better ability to monetize the melody

    What should they do? Use this controversy to promote the hell out of both songs (both are good IMO). Maybe stage "song fight" appearances together. Maybe record a version together. Work out a deal where Joe gets something out of the Coldplay song.

    But not all profits, that's silly. Most of Coldplay's profits (but in this case maybe not 100%) are the direct result of what Coldplay does so well: play and market their music in a way that connects with a large audience.

    Frankly, I have neither track, but would like to have both now. Joe Satriani just might pick up some sales of his music from this publicity.

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