In the Center Ring: Satriani vs. Coldplay

Hosted by

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.

Last Thursday, guitarist Joe Satriani filed a lawsuit against the rock band Coldplay for copyright infringement. Satriani claimed the band's song, "Viva La Vida" was stolen from his 2004 instrumental song, "If I could Fly".

Satriani believes Coldplay stole the main melody from his version of the song. Allegations of plagiarism are not unusual in the record business. They have been argued in court for centuries.

In 1902, the historic Baptist hymn, "Amazing Grace" was the centerpiece of a plagiarism lawsuit. In 1946, Cole Porter found himself in six lawsuits with a man claiming to have written some of Porter's most famous songs. The plaintiff lost every case.

Bob Dylan was sued by a man claiming to have written fourteen songs which Dylan later stole lyrical fragments from. The case was heard and dismissed on the grounds of insufficient evidence.

We live in a litigious society where disputes are often settled in courtrooms. The broad scope of imagination defies the legal boundaries meant to protect it. Creativity is often circumstantial. An artist might be inspired by the beauty or pain they've experienced in the past. And creativity is rarely linear. It's amorphous, intangible and often otherworldly. Songwriters are smart to secure their work with the copyright office. Creativity may be fleeting, but intellectual copyrights last decades. Without copyright paperwork, a creative soul will have a difficult time defending their work, and therefore their income.

Perhaps the most famous case of plagiarism was Beatles' guitarist, George Harrison for his song "My Sweet Lord". The court determined Harrison had unconsciously misappropriated the musical essence of Mack's song, "He's So Fine" while writing "My Sweet Lord". Harrison was ordered to surrender the majority of royalties from his song and partial royalties from his album, All Things Must Pass.

Winning a plagiarism lawsuit is extremely difficult. There are many considerations involved. The music is reduced to single notes for musicologists to interpret. A substantial amount of the essence of the song must be replicated. Access to the stolen song must be demonstrated, which means, the plaintiff needs to show a reasonable way the defendant could have heard the song to plagiarize it.

In a bizarre twist, a band from New York, called Creaky Boards, claims the melody from the same Coldplay song was actually stolen from their song written in 1997, ironically titled, "The Songs I Didn't Write." Regardless of the outcome, it's pretty amazing that three bands are all performing elements of the same melody, while each claims to have uniquely created it. I've listened to all three of these songs and there are some amazing similarities. You too can compare Satriani's music, along with Creaky Boards' in side-by-side comparisons with Coldplay's music on You Tube. And if you're really interested in music copyright issues, check out the UCLA / Columbia Law School Copyright Project. They have the best information out there. You can get the links for all these at my website here at KCRW.

With over 1.5 million views of the Colplay/Satriani comparison on Youtube, the band remained unmoved. Yesterday Coldplay announced, "If there are any similarities between our two pieces of music, they are entirely coincidental, and just as surprising to us as to Satriani. Joe Satriani is a great musician, but he did not write the song ‘Viva La Vida.' We respectfully ask him to accept our assurances of this and wish him well with all future endeavors."

And the beat goes on.

This is Celia Hirschman with On the Beat for KCRW.