Musicians Should Calm Down When It Comes to Copyright

Before we begin, let's just clarify that this article refers to artist vs. artist disputes, not artist vs. politician ones. Trump, and other politicians, need to stop just using songs on their campaign trails without the permission of the artist. That's not on. Anyway, onto the actual article.

In our Western scale, there are 12 notes in total. There are multiple octaves, many instruments, and different styles of music, but at the end of the day, practically every piece of music we hear is made up of a combination of those 12 notes. Recorded music has been going for over a century now, not to mention all the classical/baroque/romantic etc music that came before it.

As such, similarities are going to occur in compositions. When you're constantly choosing from the same set notes, it's inevitable that someone is going to have the same, or a very similar idea, as someone else. There's no escaping it, and to be fair, it's quite amazing that we still hear so much truly original music to this day.

Copyright laws exist for a reason, of course. Plagiarism is wrong, and no-one should be allowed to completely and directly copy another creator's work, certainly without crediting them in the process. That's why artists must seek permission before using samples, and why MC Hammer was sued for his big hit 'U Can't Touch This', the hook of which was nicked from the Rick James track 'Super Freak'. This lawsuit was then handled in the right way - out of court, efficiently, with no bad words exchanged from either side.

But it's not always that way and it can get unnecessarily ugly. Take the case of Joe Satriani and Coldplay, who became embroiled in a battle when Satriani accused the band of stealing his song 'If I Could Fly' for their hit 'Viva La Vida'. Have a listen to a comparison below.

The similarities are obvious, and perhaps Satriani's lawsuit was justified - but that's not the point here. What made the whole affair so, for want of a better word, cringy, was the words exchanged between the two camps. When discussing why he sued Coldplay, Joe Satriani said "I felt like a dagger went right through my heart. It hurt so much. I spent so long writing the song, thinking about it, loving it, nursing it, and then finally recording it and standing on stages the world over playing it." Coldplay then hit back, saying Satriani's song "lacked originality" - and bear in mind that their song, undoubtedly, has a very similar melody. They've written almost the same thing and called the other track "unoriginal". Think it through.

Wars of words like this are just unneccesary and, honestly, just look a bit lame. The songs are similar, and perhaps Coldplay heard it one day and subconsciously wrote 'Viva La Vida' with its influence - but all these words of hurt and insults are just pointless and petty.

Ironically, it was Tom Petty who took the best approach to these matters. When Rolling Stone asked him about the Red Hot Chili Peppers hit 'Dani California', which bears similarities to Petty's song 'Mary Jane's Last Dance', he simply said "I seriously doubt that there is any negative intent there. And a lot of rock 'n' roll songs sound alike. Ask Chuck Berry. The Strokes took 'American Girl' for their song 'Last Nite', and I saw an interview with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud. I was like, 'OK, good for you'. If someone took my song note for note and stole it maliciously, then maybe [I'd sue]. But I don't believe in lawsuits much. I think there are enough frivolous lawsuits in this country without people fighting over pop songs."

And that's exactly it. Songs are great, and with just 12 notes to choose from, yes, there will be songs that sound pretty damn similar to one another. Copyright is important and the work of an artist should be protected, but barring any truly malicious intent, any war of words just looks stupid.

Petty was involved in another case, involving the Sam Smith track 'Stay With Me', the writers of which acknowledged was very similar to Petty and Jeff Lynne's track 'I Won't Back Down'. Petty's response? "All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam's people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement." Far from accusing Smith of blatant plagiarism and attacking his track, Petty basically said "S*** happens", whilst also getting the job done. This is surely the best way of doing it.

Long story short: there are 12 notes and sometimes songs will have similar parts. Some musicians, then, should be more understanding when it comes to their lawsuits and what they say in the press. Instead of hurling insults and accusing the newer artist of stealing, perhaps acknowledge that this can happen, be it via coincidence, subconscious writing or whatever. Sue if you must, but do it quietly and quickly without any hassle. Basically, chill out.


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