A case of cold plagiarism?
Guitarist Joe Satriani's claim against Coldplay highlights the complexity of comparing melodies.
The old adage "where there's a hit, there's a writ" is certainly true of Coldplay's inescapable tune, "Viva La Vida." In December, guitar virtuoso Joe Satriani – renowned for dexterous fingers – claimed that "Viva La Vida" is a case of cold plagiarism of his 2004 melody, "If I Could Fly." (Last June, an obscure New York band called Creaky Boards also accused the British megastars of stealing "Viva La Vida" but didn't take the claim to court.)Skip to next paragraph
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Claims of musical theft go as far back as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart's feuds with rival composer Antonio Salieri. But determining culpability over musical plagiarism hasn't become any easier over the centuries. Plaintiffs must first prove that the defendant had "access" to their music, and then determine that the two melodies are "similar."
But defining what constitutes a similarity can be complex. For starters, there's likely to be a difference in key, a difference in pitch, and even a slight difference in tempo to adjust for the different voice.
"No one would really have a question [about copying] if it was a book and the organization [of the material] was the same, and a few of the chapters were the same, word for word," says copyright lawyer Oren Warshavsky of New York firm Baker Hostetler. "Because it's music, it's a little harder, especially because a lot of times you're talking about the performative aspect of the music."
Still, that hasn't deterred several plaintiffs from filing lawsuits against some of popular music's biggest stars of late:
Earlier this month, an Italian court awarded an Italian songwriting duo a slice of Prince's royalties over the alleged similarities between his 1994 hit song, "The Most Beautiful Girl in the World" and their tune, "Takin' Me to Paradise." But the case faces another hearing.