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The British rock band Coldplay

In Legal Documents, Coldplay Says Satriani Song "Lacks Originality"

April 09, 2009 12:01 PM
by findingDulcinea Staff
British band Coldplay continues to deny allegations from Joe Satriani that they plagiarized his 2004 instrumental song "If I Could Fly.”

Coldplay Legal Team Asserts Innocence

Coldplay has issued court papers in defense of guitarist Joe Satriani's lawsuit against them, which was filed last December. According to The Guardian, the band's legal team asserts that "any similarities between the artists' work is not enough to warrant damages" and that "Satriani's song 'lacks originality' and should not receive copyright protection."

Satriani filed suit against Coldplay on Dec. 4, 2008, alleging they had lifted substantial parts of his 2004 instrumental song called "If I Could Fly" for their song “Viva La Vida,” released in 2008. (Watch a guitar teacher's analysis of the two songs on YouTube.)

Coldplay then issued a statement saying, "If there are any similarities between our two pieces of music, they are entirely coincidental, and just as surprising to us as to him."

Satriani stated his desire for a federal judge to order an accounting of the band's profits from the sale of the song.

This was the second time the band has been accused of borrowing sections of another artist’s work. Earlier in 2008, New York-based band Creaky Boards prepared a YouTube analysis of their song “The Songs I Didn’t Write,” also suggesting that Coldplay had used sections of it for “Viva La Vida.” However, the Creaky Boards did not file a lawsuit against Coldplay.

According to Rolling Stone, Satriani’s lawyers will have to prove that Coldplay heard his 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.” The case is ongoing.

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Background: A history of music plagiarism

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.”

In 2005, Madonna lost a suit filed by Belgian musician Salvatore Acquaviva for borrowing just four bars from the melody of one of his songs to create the track “Frozen” for her 1998 album, “Ray of Light.”

Reactions: Is it lawsuit-worthy?

Not all allegations result in lawsuits; Blogcritics 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: Is copying a necessary evil?

In a 2004 New Yorker essay, Malcolm Gladwell analyzed the idea of borrowing style cues and elements from another’s artistic endeavors. He 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: Music sampling clouds plagiarism 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 to commercial interests for further profits.

Although the song eventually went on to be featured in a number of ads, including one for Nike, The Verve was left with nothing.

Reference: A history of music copyright cases

The 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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