Is it theft, borrowing, unconscious plagiarism or sheer coincidence? Coldplay is being taken to court over allegations it pinched a tune by US guitarist Joe Satriani. Satriani claims Coldplay's song Viva la Vida is a direct rip-off of his melody If I Could Fly and he wants any and all profits from the Coldplay hit.
The two songs have been overlayed on the video sharing website YouTube just to prove the point. Coldplay says any similarity is entirely coincidental and that Satriani did not write or have any influence on their song. But when it comes to other pop songs, copying is nothing new. Perhaps most famously, the Beatles' George Harrison was forced to pay almost $1 million in royalties after a court found he had subconsciously copied The Chiffons's He's So Fine.
And eyebrows were raised at the similarities between the opening bass line bars of The Jam's song Start and the Beatles' Taxman, but in that case The Jam's Paul Weller admitted to being under the influence of the Beatles.
Copyright Lawyer Michael Easton from Brett Oaten Solicitors explains how damages might be assessed in the Coldplay case. "[You need to assess if] there's any kind of culpability on the defendant's part. So if it's agreed that they subconsciously infringed then that might be something that reduces damages," he said. "But you'd also look at things like the extent to which the market for the original work's been affected and what kind of profits the defendant made as a result of the infringement.
"Another aspect which is often significant in these cases is looking at the likelihood that the writer, the defendant, was exposed to the original song. So the question might come down to a case of whether [singer] Chris Martin has a Joe Satriani album in his collection."
And that makes composing increasingly tricky for artists, says Elder. "The average musician is a fairly nerdy kind of person who is very, very interested in music and listens to a lot of it and presumably have a vast amount of music swimming around in their head," he said.
"And if this is the case, they can often stumble on something and say, well I don't know where I got that but it sounds pretty good and I'm going to make a song out of it. If there is some kind of huge settlement in favour of Joe Satriani, then it really does create a situation where other writers are going to be saying 'I wonder whether I'm plagiarising something. 'How am I going to prove to people that I haven't been plagiarising this?'."
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