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Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin

Satriani Sues Coldplay for Plagiarism in the Latest Rock 'n' Roll Copycat Case

December 06, 2008 08:00 AM
by Christopher Coats
California guitarist Joe Satriani accused the British band Coldplay of copying sections of his song "If I Could Fly" to create their hit song "Viva la Vida."

Rock 'n' Roll Plagiarism

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Guitarist Joe Satriani filed suit against Coldplay this week, alleging they had lifted substantial parts of a 2004 instrumental composition for their song “Viva la Vida,” released earlier this year.

This marks the second time this year that the band has been accused of borrowing sections of another artist’s work. Earlier this year, New York-based band the Creaky Boards prepared a YouTube analysis of their song “The Songs I Didn’t Write,” also suggesting that Coldplay had used sections for “Viva la Vida.”

However, the band did not file a lawsuit.

According to Rolling Stone, Satriani’s lawyers will have to prove that Coldplay heard his 2004 song “If I Could Fly,” as well as prove that there are enough similarities between the two songs to justify the charges.

Satriani is suing for “any and all profits attributable to the alleged copyright infringement.”

Background: A long history in music

Similar lawsuits have a long history in popular music, with cases dating back decades.

George Harrison once found himself on the receiving end of a lawsuit filed by The Chiffons and their song publishers, alleging that their 1963 hit, “He’s So Fine,” was directly lifted to create the former Beatle’s solo effort, “My Sweet Lord.”

Years later, Rod Stewart was successfully sued by Brazilian singer Jorge Ben Jor, who accused the former Faces singer of taking the tune for the chorus of his hit, “Do You Think I’m Sexy,” directly from Ben Jor’s song, “Taj Mahal.”

More recently, Madonna lost a suit filed by Italian musician Salvatore Acquaviva for borrowing just four bars from the melody of one of his songs to create the track “Frozen” for the singer’s 1998 album, “Ray of Light.”

Response: All that bad?

However, not all allegations result in lawsuits; Blog Critics Magazine reported in a story that “Tom Petty is Not Suing The Red Hot Chili Peppers,” and short of proof of malicious intent, some singers don’t think he should.

Responding to allegations that the Red Hot Chili Peppers had lifted sections of his song “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” in both style and substance to create their track, “Dani California,” Tom Petty told Rolling Stone that the charge was much ado about nothing.

“A lot of rock & roll songs sound alike. Ask Chuck Berry,” Petty said. “If someone took my song note for note and stole it maliciously, then maybe. But I don’t believe in lawsuits much. I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs.”

Opinion & Analysis: A necessary evil?

Analyzing the idea of borrowing style cues and elements from another’s artistic endeavors in a 2004 New Yorker essay, Malcolm Gladwell found a long and vibrant tradition of cribbing from earlier works that was not only impossible to avoid, but often vital to the evolution of music.

“True, copying could go too far – There were times when one artist was simply replicating the work of another, and to let that pass inhibited true creativity,” Gladwell wrote. “But it was equally dangerous to be overly vigilant in policing creative expression.”

Related Topic: Sampling clouds the issue

Laws surrounding music copyright and plagiarism were further clouded with the advent of hip-hop music, specifically the tradition of using samples to create backing tracks.

After early albums, such as Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and the Beastie Boys’ “Paul’s Boutique” built entire sonic landscapes out of existing songs, a slew of lawsuits put a stop to such use almost immediately.

Since then, suits filed on the basis of the use of just seconds sampled from existing songs have resulted in costly payouts to the original composers or copyright holders.

Not relegated to hip-hop, sampling lawsuits extended to the rock world in 1997 when the British band The Verve licensed a few bars from an orchestrated version of a Rolling Stones song to add to their track, “Bittersweet Symphony.”

Alleging that the band had used too much of the original track, The Rolling Stones were able to claim 100 percent of the song’s profits, earn production credits on the song and license the track themselves to commercial interests for further profits.

While the song eventually went on to be featured in a number of ads, including Nike, The Verve were left with nothing.

Reference: A history of cases

The UCLA Law Copyright Infringement Project provides an extensive collection of music copyright cases filed throughout the 20th century, complete with all relevant documents and audio samples of the different songs in question.
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