Power of Copyright Protection

Example of a Copyright in Action: Coldplay®

On December 4, 2008, guitarist Joe Satriani sued British rock group Coldplay for copyright infringement. The Coldplay song at the heart of the suit, “Viva La Vida,” received two 2008 Grammy awards for “Song of the Year” and “Best Pop Performance by a Duo or Group with Vocals.” Grammy.com. It was featured on the album “Viva La Vida or Death and All His Friends”, which was the number one-selling album in 36 countries and received a Grammy for “Best Rock Album.” NPR.

The suit was filed in a California federal court and asserted that the Coldplay song includes “substantial original portions” of the 2004 Satriani song, “If I Could Fly.” In the suit, Satriani sought a jury trial and “any and all profits attributable to the alleged copyright infringement.” BBC News.

The guitar riffs in the two songs are compared in this YouTube clip. It is clear that the two songs use similar ascending melodies and chord sequences. However, as an MSNBC article points out, when two songs sound alike “sometimes it’s pure coincidence, a matter of great minds thinking alike… What seems like a brilliant burst of musical inspiration can simply be the release of a deeply embedded memory.” A writer on techdirt.com questioned whether the allegedly infringed content was a “somewhat natural melody to sing over those chords,” after all, “there are only so many notes in a scale…”

In response to the suit, Coldplay denied plagiarizing the earlier Satriani song. In an official statement by the band posted on its website, Coldplay stated that “any similarities between our two pieces of music… are entirely coincidental… Joe Satriani… did not write or have any influence on the song Viva La Vida.” Therefore, Coldplay asserted that its work was an independent creation, which is one of the primary copyright infringement defenses.

Since there is rarely direct evidence of copying (ex: a witness observes the photocopying of pages in a book), plaintiffs in a copyright infringement case must instead prove that the defendant(s) had access to the earlier work. However, this is not a very high burden to meet. As one legal expert points out, “living in a modern society with the Internet it’s very difficult for a defendant, the second author, to say he or she had not seen a published work.” MSNBC. Thus, it would not be difficult to demonstrate that any of Coldplay’s members previously heard “If I Could Fly”, as Joe Satriani is well known, especially among guitarist enthusiasts. The legal issue in such a case then becomes whether the two works in question are “substantially similar.” Usually, this is left for a jury to decide.

On September 14, 2009, almost one year after filing suit, Satriani dropped the suit “upon stipulation.” Justia.com. Both sides did not release official details of the settlement, but sources told Billboard that a financial settlement between the two parties was reached. Terms of the settlement were not disclosed, but the settlement “would not require Coldplay to admit any wrongdoing.” New York Times.

Frequently suits of such magnitude settle before reaching trial. Coldplay’s song and album was one of the biggest sellers of 2008 and the basis of Apple’s iTunes advertising campaign that year. Had a jury agreed with Satriani that Coldplay infringed the earlier work, substantial profits would have been awarded given “Viva La Vida’s” commercial success. Instead of rolling the dice with a jury or incurring any more legal fees arguing independent creation, it was reasonable for Coldplay to enter into an out-of-court settlement agreement with Satriani.

This case demonstrates that only original works are protected by copyright, and non-original works (e.g., the products of conscious or subconscious copying) are liable to face infringement suits. Original artists must be able to prove prior creation and access/actual copying to prevail on an infringement suit. Given that many ideas are inspired by/the product of other works, and given that the internet makes so many such works readily accessible, access is often not terribly difficult to prove. Prior creation is most effectively shown by formally registering an original work with the Copyright Office. It is common for signed musicians to register their songs and albums, but all creators of original material, whether broadly sold or meant only for a limited audience, can benefit from registration. Under the Copyright Act, registration is also required before an infringement suit may be filed, and registration also makes the details of the work a public record so others can purchase or license the work, if desired.

Disclaimer

The preceding article is meant to illustrate the power of copyright protection and briefly demonstrate a copyright legal proceeding. It is neither sponsored by nor endorsed by Coldplay or Joe Satriani. Background facts were taken from public news sources and are expressed within the boundaries of the fair use copyright doctrine.

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