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Does Joe Satriani Have a Copyright Infringement Claim against Coldplay?



Joe Satriani

Joe Satriani

Guitarist Joe Satriani brought a plagiarism suit last week in Los Angeles against the band Coldplay for allegedly plagiarizing his song “If I Could Fly.”   Satriani claims that Coldplay used the same melody progression in their song “Viva La Vida.”‘

The songs can be heard together here:  So do you think the songs are the same?

Proving a plagiarism claim in music is extremely difficult, therefore Satriani will face an uphill battle.  Satriani as the plaintiff has the burden of proof to show that copyright infringement occurred.  In order to prove copyright infringement a plaintiff must show (1) that he owned a valid copyright to the song and that (2) copying of the song occured.

Under the first element Satriani will be able to show that he owned a valid copyright in his song “If I could Fly.”  A copyright is established the moment the work has been completed and I am assuming that he also registered the copyright with the federal government, gaining more protection and the ability to sue in Federal Court.  Therefore Satriani owns the reproduction rights as well as the rights to prepare derivative works.

The second element, copying, will be harder to prove.  In order to prove copying Satriani must show (1) access as well as (2) substantial similarity.  In order to prove access the plaintiff can show either that there is a particular chain of events between plaintiffs work and defendants access to that work or that the plaintiffs work has been widely disseminated.  In this case Satriani’s song has been widely disseminated through mass distribution and radio play.  Therefore this element would be met.

Next Satriani would have to prove that there is a substantial similarity between the two songs.  This is done through extrinsic and intrinsic tests.  An extrinsic test would prove concrete elements such as similar notes and lyrics which is done through expert testimony.  An intrinsic test looks at whether an average person would find the total concepts of the works to be substantially similar.  This can be done through surveys and polls of average people.  If there is a high degree of access shown then there is a lower standard for substantial similarity.  In this case it is very likely that Coldplay had access to the Satriani song. The outcome  will come down to expert testimony and the views of the general public to determine if copying occurred.   So I ask again, do you think, there is copying involved?    If yes then it is likely that Satriani will win his case as the courts ruled in Newton v. Diamond (2002) that a musical note sequence of 6 or more notes was copyrightable.

Coldplay will counter these allegations and state that their song was an independent creation, wherebye the group independently came up with the song on their own.  This would be hard to prove because they would have to show that they had never heard the Satriani song, which has been widely distributed.  If Coldplay tries to argue fair use, that would fail because they are using the song for profit and allegedly copied significant amounts of the Satriani song.

It will be interesting how this case turns out.  I would venture to guess that the parties will settle their dispute due to the fact that an average person would probably find that there is a similarity, the same melody and notes were most likely used, and it would be easy to prove that Coldplay had access to the Satriani song.


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Richard J. Symmes, Esq
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