“He. Has. No. Case.”
Thus my son, on the recent Joe Satriani lawsuit, in which he claims that Coldplay’s “Viva la Vida” (I assume that the recent Grammy nomination is not coincidental to the suit), uses substantial portions of his instrumental song “If I Could Fly.” It’s the “I used to rule the world; seas would rise when I gave the word” lick. The resemblance (melody, repeated chords IVmaj7—V—iii7—vi, at least to my ear) is clear. My son’s argument is that it’s in a different key (irrelevant), that it is not nearly as important in Satriani’s song as in Coldplay’s (irrelevant and, I think, wrong: the rest of Satriani’s song is noodling), and that there aren’t any words and it’s so much better than the Satriani (irrelevant and quite, quite right). The Satriani is six-and-a-half minutes of godawful noodling interspersed with that lick, and it sounds to me rather like a bland 1970s instrumental. Satriani sounds like Satriani: absolute command over his instrument. His tune, however, does nothing for me.
These are the issues that are going to be debated in court, I imagine. I think from time to time about the process of expert witnessing, and all the things that are involved, so I explained to Ben some of what was likely to go on at the trial. The poor lad was outraged: “WHAT?! People get paid to listen to songs and talk about the differences, and compare them? I would pay to do that!!” Yeah, I said, but you don’t just walk in and blab. “Of course not! You have to do the research, which means listening to a lot of other songs, which you’d want to do anyway!” Well… “OK, Dad, I see your point; if it’s crappy music…”
I will be interested to see how this plays out. I imagine there are a lot of other issues, legally: other music that has used the same lick, likeliness of influence, whether the cited music is common enough to be outside of copyright, etc. One suspects that the persuasiveness of the attorneys in question will have a good deal to do with the success of either side’s perspective. Shades of the “My Sweet Lord”/”He’s So Fine” lawsuit, at least in my memory. There’s probably a much bigger pool of cases to talk about, cases that have gone both ways.
Watch the news. I can’t help but wonder why the lawsuit was announced after the Grammy nomination—it is hard to avoid the suspicion that Satriani smelled money, or notice, or something; he can’t have missed the song before this point. I’m not in his shoes, though, as illustrated by my own experience:
One of the very few ballet exercises I was proud of writing was a ronde de jamb par terre in kind of a mushy Scots idiom; it’s on the first of my two ballet CDs. Years later, I heard another ballet CD from the same company that seemed to copy me, and even got a professional musician friend to verify my suspicions. So I—huffily—asked the woman who owned the company about it (a dear friend; the woman who trained me as a ballet pianist). She was mortally offended, and she asked the other pianist, who explained that his piece was…a Scots folksong. So I got a copy of the folksong on interlibrary loan, and…my piece sounded a hell of a lot like it. I thought I’d made it up. Maybe I’d heard it on Garrison Keillor’s show a week or two before, because someone told me it was performed on the show…
So one of my best ideas was, indeed, really good. Unsurprisingly, I probably didn’t think of it; my aural memory was better than I knew, and when I thought “Oh, maybe I’ll try something pseudo-Scots” in the ballet class, I played an actual Scots folksong I had heard but didn’t know I’d remembered. I was not wronged; the only wronged people were those I questioned. Sigh.
Warren Zevon once said in an interview, “You’re better off not knowing where it comes from.”
I believe it.
I wonder if Coldplay will?