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Should copyright cover chord progressions?

I was intrigued by a lawsuit filed against the hit band Coldplay last December. Guitarist Joe Satriani claimed that the Coldplay’s hit “Viva La Vida” infringed on his rights to his song “If I Could Fly.”Satriani claimed that Coldplay had copied “substantial and original portions” of his song. According to an MSNBC article, the case was dismissed in court last month.

After the lawsuit was filed, I listened to this comparison, Coldplay Vs. Joe Satriani on YouTube, to see if I could pin-point the “stolen” material. The chord progression did seem similar, if not the same. Siva Vaidhyanathan talks about the limited number of keys and chords musicians have to work with in his Copyrights and Copywrongs several times. After exhausting every possible combination of keys to make both single chords and progressions, are all of the following works considered unoriginal?

Coldplay claimed the similar sounds were completely coincidental. I believe them. In discussing why “thinner” copyright laws should replace our current ones, I have to argue that claiming ownership of a particular chord progression, played by different string instruments, to produce a different song, is a little ridiculous. However, under the current laws and language, should Satriani have won his case?

  1. mchrapliwy
    October 25th, 2009 at 13:38 | #1

    Excellent post. You present a compelling case with regard to music and copyright then ask us to think about it.

    I would answer that Satriani should not have won a case regarding a short chord progression in a longer work. Though I am clearly in favor of copyright protection, as you would see in my posts, I’m not sure that a short chord progression similarity could not be purely accidental.

    This brings another question – just how many chord progressions are there? As a fiction writer, I know that there are only so many ideas – it is how you express those ideas that sets a writer’s work apart from others. Is it the same for musicians? Are there only a small number of chord progressions and perhaps each musician’s work as a whole sets them apart from others?

  2. AileenBachant
    October 26th, 2009 at 17:16 | #2

    My boyfriend, Douglas Pritch, is a musician. He started writing and playing his own original work before becoming a teenager. He now teaches guitar lessons in Beachwood, NJ and practices and performs with a few different bands in the Jersey Shore community. I asked him how he felt about the similar chord progression being called purely accidental. He corrected me, while siding with Satriani.

    Apparently, the real problem is not the chord progression, but rather the “identical” melodies. As a musician, Doug assured me that the timing and chord progressions in Coldplay’s Viva La Vida create a melody “identical” to that of Joe Satriani’s song. He said the bigger question is whether both the timing and chord progressions, together, could be coincidentally identical. It was clear by his response that he thought they could not be.

  3. Mary Chrapliwy
    October 26th, 2009 at 19:54 | #3

    You boyfriend is certainly the authority on the matter. I would defer to his judgment on that then. Why did he think the case was lost?

  4. Tyler
    April 4th, 2010 at 14:32 | #4

    I’m a little biased, but I think the melodies are similar too, not just the progression. Of course I’m a huge fan of Joe Satriani, (he’s sort of my hero), and I think he knows alot more about what makes the songs similar than anyone else. He’s more of a musician than coldplay will ever hope to be.

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