Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Sanity test

If you've been awake during the past month, you may possibly have heard that the band Coldplay is being sued for infringing the copyright of guitarist Joe Satriani. Seems that Coldplay's hugely popular hit "Viva la Vida" uses the same melody and chord progression as Satriani's (hitherto) little-known "If I Could Fly".

Coldplay denies it. Not strenuously, not hotly, but quietly and firmly and with surprising dignity for a rock band. (Probably time to declare my interest here: I personally like the Coldplay song.)

YouTube is crawling with commentaries, combinations and comparisons of the two songs. To me, the best of these is this offering, which digs up no less than five previous versions of the same melody, the earliest dating right back to the 1960s. It's been said that there are only seven basic notes in music, and moreover there are fairly strong rules about how you can combine them in any given genre. So who, exactly, is going to say whose contribution deserves to be considered most important?

To me, this case is ever so slightly terrifying.

In Coldplay's favour: their song is substantially original, it's been a colossal popular (and critical) hit, they've got plenty of money to fight the case, and there is no evidence that Coldplay had ever heard Satriani's recording. In Satriani's favour: the melodies, rhythms and chord progressions are more than averagely similar. And -- and this is the point that I think has been largely overlooked -- he's American. There are lots of people commenting on those YouTube videos who think that the case is a slam-dunk for Satriani.

If Satriani wins, that will imply a reversal of the burden of proof in copyright infringement cases: the onus will be on songwriters to prove that they haven't "copied" another's work. I would see such an outcome as vindication of my "imaginary frontier" theory: that the American legal establishment is engaged in the biggest land grab in history, claiming absolute sovereignty over the entire realm of "intellectual property".

So what should happen here?

Well, for starters, copyright needs to loosen up. A lot.

Until very recently, if someone copied a basic theme, made their own changes and sold the work as their own, no-one turned a hair. So long as the changes were sufficient to count as an "original" contribution, the attitude was: "good on them, for enriching all our lives". The movie Clueless fails to credit Jane Austen for the original story, but nobody accused it of plagiarism. And that attitude has, so far, failed to lead to the death of artistic creativity. On the contrary, it encourages it: there's nothing more stifling to creativity than constantly policing your own thoughts against the possiblity of "stealing" someone else's idea.

But the bar for plagiarism is slowly creeping downward. And that, it seems to me, really will lead to the end of creativity.

Make the most of art while we have it. If Van Gogh were working in today's legal climate, he'd have been sued by Cezanne for copying his style.


Richard H. said...

Queen never sued Vanilla Ice for his blatant use of "Under Pressure" despite his strenuous protests that the song was 100% original, although after some (minor) research there may have been a settlement involved.

Joe Sat has no chance here. You hit the nail on the head when you said this would be an awful precedent to set.

vet said...

Richard, you're right -- the Vanilla Ice case was far more blatant than this. And to claim that you'd "never heard" a track by Queen & Bowie in the 1980s really would stretch credulity.

I hope we're both right. But I'm afraid, chiefly because of the nationality factor: Queen and Bowie were British, VI American. This time the situation is reversed. Jingoism is a powerful force in politics, especially when a country feels insecure -- and politics bleeds into law all too easily.