This article has been written by Jaime Ruchman , a student at Berklee College of Music in Valencia, for the course “Business and Intellectual Property” in the Master in Global Entertainment and Music Business
Essay by: Jaime Ruchman
Joe Satriani's copyright infringement lawsuit against Coldplay
There has been a lot of lawsuits in the music industry in the last 20 years, but few of them really got my attention because in the majority of cases they were artist that played two completely different music styles (rock vs hip hop, classical vs jazz, blues vs reggae amongst others). But the Satriani vs Coldplay lawsuit grabbed most of –like me- electric guitar enthusiasts around the world, especially since the guitarist in mention has been one of the most prominent guitar heroes in the last two decades and earned a big fan base because of his talent and charisma. Besides, at the time of the lawsuit it was interesting to see the forum discussions between Satriani fans and Coldplay fans since the first ones had much more music theory knowledge (guitar shredders in their vast majority) and the second ones much more indifferent and without caring too much about the problem. But the final result is surprising for all, to say the least.
On May 25th 2008 British alternative band Coldplay released their single “Viva la Vida” as a way to promote their brand new album called “Viva la Vida or Death and All His Friends”. The song contained a catchy chorus based on a guitar chord progression as the base harmony and a vocal melody on top these chords.1 But less than 7 months after, on December 4th 2008, Joe Satriani filed a copyright infringement suit against Coldplay because their song Viva la Vida contained “substantial and original portions”2 of his instrumental song “If I could fly” from his 2004 album “Is there Love in Space”.3
Five days after the public announcement of the lawsuit, Coldplay made an official statement through their website regarding this issue:
With the greatest possible respect to Joe Satriani, we have now unfortunately found it necessary to respond publicly to his allegations. If there are any similarities between our two pieces of music, they are entirely coincidental, and just as surprising to us as to him. Joe Satriani is a great musician, but he did not write or have any influence on the song Viva La Vida. We respectfully ask him to accept our assurances of this and wish him well with all future endeavours. Coldplay.4
Still, Satriani and his lawyer team continued with the lawsuit process stating that his song was copied based on plagiarism on rhythm, melody and harmony. The copyright infringement suit was filed in Los Angeles federal court on December 4th and Satriani asked for:
1) A Jury trial.
3) Profits from Viva La Vida.
The final result: no winning party (lack of substantial originality).
10 months after the lawsuit was filed, on September 14th 2009, the case was dismissed apparently (“upon stipulation”) on an out of court settlement between the two parties. Neither the artists or his lawyers gave any further comment on the trial, but it was informed that both parties would be paying their own trial costs and finally the case was closed.5
We can start guessing why the cased was closed with no winning party. In order to do that we’ll use the legal term for every piece of work able to defend it’s copyright rights in a jury: originality. Despite that these two songs were created by their respective authors, the music line in discussion had not enough or minimal degree of creativity. In a spontaneous Youtube video created by a music aficionado, it shows how common this melody over a chord progression, it even had a lot of artists that had wrote/played it before Coldplay’s version6:
1973 - Cat Stevens - "Foreigner Suite"
1981 - Martiy Balin - "Hearts"
1980's - Tim Armstrong - "Sing for your Supper"
2002 - Los Enanitos Verdes - "Frances Limon"
2004 - Joe Satriani - "If I Could Fly"
2004 - Cascada - "Piece of Heaven"
2004 - Günther - "Teeny Weeny String Bikini"
2007 - Günther - "Sun Trip (Summer Holiday)"
2007 - Creaky Boards - "The Songs I Didn't Write"
2008 - Coldplay - "Viva La Vida"
Conclusions and personal opinion:
The definition of what is original work or not can be most of the times theoretical and in real life this falls into a deeper problem. Considering that the music have just seven notes (do-re-mi-fa-so-la-si) chances are that a musical work can be considered “coincidence” for the indicted part while “plagiarism” for the plaintiff. The law states that the originality concept in copyright must have a “minimal degree of creativity”. Once again this falls into what is “minimal” since this will seriously depend on who is the listener. On the other side, copyright law also states that a work is considered plagiarism when it has a “substantial part of another person’s work”. Once again a tricky one since “substantial” is extremely subjective in music: Beethoven’s fifth symphony intro had just four notes played in less than 5 seconds, so if that’s substantial enough?
Finally, in this particular case Coldplay stated that the similarity between their song and Satriani’s song were pure coincidence. But, coincidence or not, the similarity between the two songs are clear. This statement can be supported by music theory analysis: at least two of the main music plagiarism elements were exactly the same (rhythm and harmony) while melody remained similar.7
Despite the above, in legal aspects this statement was not enough in terms of originality allegedly because of the amount of relevant original coincidences from past works.
In my personal opinion what I can say comes from the actual moment that the lawsuit happened: as a diehard Joe Satriani fan I was extremely angry with Coldplay when I read the news about this. But to say the truth I didn’t notice the similarity until that precise moment. Sometimes the media influence in our opinion and far away from benefit the artist (in this case Satriani) sometimes their image get deteriorate. We as future music managers have the responsibility to advice artists taking into account the big picture and avoid making lawsuits for the sake of making them.