In December last year, Coldplay, one of the world’s biggest bands, were accused of plagiarism by legendary guitarist Joe Satriani who claimed that the phenomenally successful title track of Coldplay’s multi-platinum album “Viva La Vida” infringed the copyright in his instrumental track “If I Could Fly”.
Satriani claims that the two songs are so similar (in that their melody lines are almost identical) that he should be entitled to damages amounting to “any and all profits” which Coldplay have made from one of their most successful releases, which was their first UK number 1 single and part of an iconic advertising campaign for the iPod. Coldplay claim that Satriani’s song is not original enough to be protected by copyright and that any similarity is purely coincidental and was “just as much of a surprise to them”.
“Now that Coldplay have filed a defence, it’s much easier to get an idea of how this case is likely to be decided. This is a situation that has come before the court a number of times before, perhaps most famously when George Harrison was forced to pay damages for copyright infringement after a court ruled that “My Sweet Lord” was too similar to “He’s So Fine” and more recently when the Verve were forced to reach a settlement with the Rolling Stones over the use of the melody line from an orchestral version of “The Last Time”, and effectively hand over all of their royalties for their most popular song, which many believe led to their split during the ‘90s.
Copyright protects songs in a number of ways. Lyrics are protected as literary works, and recordings are protected separately. When the Court is asked to decide if two copyright works are so similar that the more recent is an infringement of the original, they will need to consider whether or not a “substantial part” of the original was copied. This is a qualitative rather than quantative test, meaning that the issue of exactly how much has been copied is not always as important as the substance of what has been copied. In the Verve’s case, they used a very distinctive melody line from “The Last Time” and based an entire song around it. P Diddy did the same with “I’ll Be Missing You”, based on “Every Breath You Take”, but he paid a licence fee to use the guitar riff.
Satriani claims that the melody line of “If I Could Fly” has been copied, but it’s not at all certain that the Courts will rule in his favour. It’s entirely possible that the two songs were composed independently, based on the same basic set of chords. Copyright law allows for this, and Satriani will have to prove to the Court’s satisfaction that Coldplay did actually copy the original. If Satriani was to win hands down at trial, he could potentially be awarded an “account of profits” from Coldplay, which would mean that they would have to hand over all of the profits generated by the song. Such awards are rare, but can be made, alongside an additional punitive award of damages if a copyright infringement is seen to be sufficiently flagrant.
However, I doubt seriously whether this case will ever reach trial. The Courts will be very careful not to set a precedent in this case, Satriani has already indicated that he would be willing to settle out of Court and Coldplay seem as if they intend to fight. Whether either would want to take the risk of having this decided by a Judge at trial is the real question. I would imagine that both acts would want to concentrate more on their live performances than having to perform well in the witness box.