Expert Witnessing

Jonathan Bellman

“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?

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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7 Responses to Expert Witnessing

  1. Check this out:

    I love that the video maker’s conclusion when he puts them together isn’t “Guilty!” or “He. Has. No. Case.” but rather “Sounds awesome!”
    I think Satriani probably has a case, but the he probably shouldn’t–the legal standard for plagiarism seems set too low to me. On the other hand, Coldplay is more famous, and unfortunately that probably counts too.

  2. John says:

    Another interesting thing is that, several months before this lawsuit, another band had accused Coldplay of plagiarism for the same song. “The Songs I Didn’t Write” by a Creaky Boards has a pretty similar melody. Here’s a youtube video illustrating the simularities

    Creaky Boards later retracted the plagiarism claim and suggested that perhaps both bands had been influenced by music from the Legend of Zelda video game.,-says-American-band.html
    (I’m waiting for someone to put together a youtube video with the appropriate music from the Legend of Zelda mashed-up with Creaky Boards, Coldplay, and Satriani. Haven’t seen it yet.)
    So it’s interesting to have Satriani get into the mix on this too. I think all of these conflicting claims actually strengthen Coldplay’s case (at least for me, based totally on my biases as a musician/ethnomusicologist and not a lawyer). When this melodic gesture can variously be traced to video game music, a guitar-shredder, an indie rock band from New York, and probably the biggest rock band in the world, it seems like a hard argument to make that the gesture is completely original, unique, and worthy of strict copyright protection. Sounds like it was just something there waiting to be played. But then, I’m not a lawyer.

  3. Jonathan says:

    Curiouser and curiouser. The Satriani passage is exact, while the Creaky Boards lick reverses the final two melodic notes of the first line. I don’t have access to the Legend of Zelda music, currently…but it seems to me you’ve pretty much destroyed Satriani’s case. It all seems pretty bland to me, but what do I know?
    After my experience with the ballet exercise, I think I know how the Creaky Boards lead singer feels. “Why am I standing here with all this pie on my face?” I don’t think we saw the Move sue Alice Cooper over the Do Ya chords, though, did we? I-V V-IV. For the beginning of Ray Davies and the Kinks’ *Soap Opera* album, there’s the exact Do Ya opening, except the chords are I-VII VII-IV: Lick/single shot on the drum/lick accompanied by drums and woodblock on every beat. I ripoff, or a tribute? I can’t imagine Jeff Lynne resenting such a hat-tip from Ray Davies, can you?
    I well understand the outrage a musician can feel if a ripoff is suspected. What’s hard is the wide-view perspective showing that, in most cases, it probably just happened that way…and his combination of all the parts was popular and yours, well, wasn’t, no matter how similar they sound.

  4. Franz Liszt says:

    Ha. I wonder if you’d say the same about the relentless and unlistenable noodling by Franz Liszt, piano man.

  5. Jonathan says:

    “Relentless and unlistenable noodling.” All I’d say to that is that in Liszt’s case it mostly depends on how it’s being played. Many times, I admit, the effect is what you describe. It is a huge misjudgment to dismiss Liszt with a wave of the hand, however.
    So is Liszt himself being called “piano man,” or…? Suddenly it seems cold in here.

  6. Franz Satriani says:

    OK I didn’t mean to come off as harsh. I would counter that it’s an equally huge misjudgment to dismiss Satriani with the wave of a hand as well! Keep up the good work on the blog though, surely your fans can disagree with you occasionally.

  7. Dan says:

    Where did the III Roman numeral come from? Surely Dmaj7 would be I if the first two chords are IV7 and V, no?

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