The silent tension inside the cavernous Staples Center built with every calculated pause, writes Derek Stahhl for the me.com website. "And the Grammy for Song of the Year goes to... Coldplay for 'Viva La Vida!'" The award, given for songwriting, was the English band's second of three wins that night for their album "Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends."
But in another part of the city, 52-year-old guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani sat appalled - too upset to watch the show on television - as his manager described the scene. Coldplay was accepting the songwriting award for a song he believes the band copied from him. Satriani had already sued Coldplay for copyright infringement.
Satriani has been nominated for 15 Grammy awards over his 30-year career, but has never won. He is one nomination away from tying Brian McKnight for the most nominations without a win. "I felt like a dagger went right through my heart. It hurt so much," Satriani said of hearing Coldplay's song for the first time in an interview with musicradar.com. "The second I heard it, I knew it was [my own] If I Could Fly."
But Satriani faces a long, uphill battle to try to prove his case. Although experts point to the striking musical similarity between the pieces and the potential that Coldplay had access to his recording - two crucial elements in a copyright suit - previous cases show the difficulty in getting a court to determine infringement has occurred.
In the early 1980s, an amateur songwriter named Ronald Selle sued the Bee Gees, claiming the group used his song, "Let It End," to create the 1977 hit "How Deep Is Your Love."
Expert witnesses testified the pieces were so similar that they could not have been created without reference to each other. One of the Bee Gees even mistakenly identified Selle's melody as his own when it was played for him on the witness stand. Selle had submitted his song to the Bee Gees' publisher, suggesting the band had access.
But a judge ultimately ruled in favor of the Bee Gees - despite a jury verdict in favor of Selle. The group had videotaped themselves in the studio during the songwriting process, and the judge felt that was enough to prove the pieces were independently created. Coldplay has also cited independent creation as one of their defenses.
Satriani says he spent more than 10 years writing "If I Could Fly," an instrumental piece released on his April 2004 album, "Is There Love in Space?" Coldplay's "Viva La Vida" was released in June 2008. "It was a love letter to my wife, Rubina - a simple, direct expression of feeling," Satriani told musicradar.com. He declined through his manager to comment for this article.
"That's what really hurts about this whole thing. That I spent so long writing the song, thinking about it, loving it, nursing it, and then finally recording it and standing on stages the world over playing it - and then somebody comes along and plays the exact same song and calls it their own."
Coldplay has fired back. In court papers filed April 6, the band denies copying Satriani's tune and says that any similarity between the two works is coincidence. "Joe Satriani is a great musician, but he did not write or have any influence on the song Viva La Vida," Coldplay said in a statement on their website shortly after the suit was filed.
The lawsuit, which is in an early stage, demonstrates the difficulty an artist faces when trying to prove someone illegally apportioned a piece of music. The process takes years, and the high cost of legal fees forces the majority of artists to either give up or settle their case out of court before it reaches a jury. But there are also notable cases where courts have ruled against big-name artists, and awarded the plaintiffs massive amounts in damages.
In perhaps the most famous copyright infringement case, the Beatles' George Harrison was sued because his 1970 hit, "My Sweet Lord," was said to be appropriated, albeit unintentionally, from the Chiffons' 1963 single, "He's So Fine."
Because of distinct musical similarities and the fact that the Chiffons' tune was a hit both in the United States and England, the court found that Harrison "subconsciously plagiarized" the doo-wop classic. The judge slapped Harrison and his record label with $1,599,987 in damages. This is significant because it establishes that Coldplay can be held liable for infringement even if they did so unintentionally.
Side-by-side comparisons of Satriani and Coldplay's songs have sprouted up all over YouTube, and both average listeners and music experts are noticing significant similarities. "It's almost astonishing how similar these pieces are," said Andrew Wasson, founder of the Creative Guitar Studio in Winnipeg, Canada. He has released a number of in-depth theoretical analyses of the two works on YouTube. "There are three primary elements in music - rhythm, melody, and harmony - and they really share all three."
Wasson says the songs have nearly identical tempos, grooves, and melodic and harmonic curves. Both songs have a four-chord progression, and the last three chords are identical. The only difference is the first chord, which Wasson says shares 4 of 6 notes and is "practically equivalent" by a theoretical principle called diatonic chord substitution. "From a musical standpoint, it doesn't look very good for Coldplay," he said.
This is not the first time Coldplay has been accused of copying another song to create "Viva La Vida." The Creaky Boards, a relatively unknown indie-rock band from New York, accused Coldplay of stealing the melody of their ironically titled track, "The Songs I Didn't Write," in June 2008. The band claimed they saw Coldplay lead singer Chris Martin at one of their New York shows in October 2007. But according to court documents, Coldplay began recording the "Viva" album in November 2006. A spokesperson for the band told Rolling Stone that "Viva La Vida" was written and demoed in March 2007, a full six months before the Creaky Boards show. The spokesperson also said Martin was in England on the night in question.
The Creaky Boards never pursued a lawsuit, but their video claiming plagiarism was viewed well over a million times. Some legal experts say the worldwide connectivity of the Internet, and in particular sites like YouTube, is fueling the number of copyright infringement cases nationwide. That's because similarities between songs are easier to spot and more frequently pointed out, copyright lawyer Don Zachary says.
The Internet and the concept of digital distribution will play a major role in the Satriani-Coldplay case when it reaches the subject of access, he says. "In the digital age, I think there is sometimes a presumption of access because music is so readily available."
Satriani's lawyer, Howard King, would not comment on the specific evidence of access he has gathered. It is widely assumed that Satriani's legal team does not have concrete evidence of access and instead will rely on this presumption of access. "Satriani's lawyers will argue that his music is everywhere. It was distributed worldwide by Sony and it's on the Internet," Zachary said. "Coldplay will say, 'look we're busy, we're on tour 200 days a year. We know who [satriani] is but we weren't aware of [this piece of music].'"
Joe Satriani and Coldplay have never played a live concert together dating back to April 2000, well before "If I Could Fly" was released, according to data collected from pollstar.com. Zachary says Satriani's lawyers may try to subpoena Coldplay's hard drives and electronics to establish evidence of access, but if they aren't successful, should still be able to rely on the fact that his album was widely distributed. "I don't think Satriani will have any trouble on access."
But sometimes even the strongest evidence of access doesn't result in a win for the plaintiff. In 1983, a composer named Les Baxter filed suit against legendary film composer John Williams. Baxter claimed Williams had plagiarized one of his orchestral pieces to create the famous flying theme from the movie "E.T."
Williams admitted that he was not only familiar with Baxter's piece, but had performed it in concert. When the case proceeded to trial, a jury found that parts of Baxter's piece were substantially similar to Williams' . . . but that those portions were not original and therefore not protectable by copyright. Coldplay has also cited "no originality," and experts like Zachary say this could be one of their best defenses.
YouTube users have posted videos pointing out that a number of songs share a similar melodic figure to "Viva La Vida" and "If I Could Fly."
Folk singer Cat Stevens told Britain's The Sun he thinks the melody for "Viva La Vida" actually originated with his 1973 song "Foreigner Suite" (fast forward to 6:30). Stevens, who now goes by Yusef Islam, says he plans to wait to see how well Satriani does before he files his own suit against Coldplay.
Zachary says as more people point out similarities to Coldplay's music, it builds a stronger legal argument that the melody in question is a common one. He thinks this could make Coldplay's "no originality" defense stronger. But Andrew Wasson of Creative Guitar Studio says none of those tunes share the degree of similarity that Satriani and Coldplay's songs do. The Enanitos Verdes song "Frances Limon," for example, begins with a similar melody but has a "very different harmony," he said.
Wasson thinks part of the part of the problem is that the struggling music industry is afraid to try something truly new, and instead tends to cling to established musical concepts that have worked in the past. "It's kind of the state of the industry right now. Being a musician, sometimes I wonder if there's ever really going to be original music again," Wasson said. "It seems ludicrous to me that a band would sit down and just copy another piece of music. But who knows? Remember Milli Vanilli?"
The pop duo had their Grammy revoked in 1990 after it was discovered they were faking performances and had hired artists to sing for them on their debut album, an infamous example that honesty and the music business aren't always in tune.
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