Plagiarism in popular music is nothing new. Artists have been outright stealing riffs and chord progressions from other artists since before the term “rock n’ roll” was even coined. In fact, major milestone artists of rock like Chuck Berry and The Beach Boys even went so far as to plagiarize themselves, recycling their own material into new hits.
Nowadays though, lifting ideas from other artists can land you in serious trouble. Songwriter Ed Sheeran has multiple suits against him by other artists, for songs like “The Rest of Our Life” (eerily similar to “When I Found You” by Jasmine Rae) and “Shape of You” (a dead ringer for “Cheap Thrills” by Sia). And let’s not forget the high-profile legal case over the song “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, which is a blatant knock-off of “Got to Give it Up” by Marvin Gaye. That saga ended in a multi-million dollar out-of-court settlement.
In other words, if you’re going to lift a riff, you’d better change it enough so it isn’t going to come back to bite you in the ass.
Coldplay, one of the most successful artists of the new millennium, has had two humungous hits that were definitely plagiarized. The first is their song “Viva La Vida” which shares not only the same chord progression but the same melody as “If I Could Fly” by Joe Satriani. Here’s a mash-up of the two tracks:
Satriani sued Coldplay and was reportedly awarded an out-of-court settlement rumored to be in the six figures.
Then, not long after, Coldplay released a song called “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” that has the same piano intro and melody as “I Go To Rio” by Peter Allen. Once again, here’s a side-by-side comparison:
This time around, however, Coldplay was smart and included the following text in the liner notes of Mylo Xyloto, the 2011 album that “Every Teardrop is a Waterfall” appears on:
Every Teardrop Is A Waterfall contains elements of I Go To Rio written by Peter Allen and Adrienne Anderson
Was this a preemptive strike by Coldplay’s lawyers to prevent an artist trying to sue them once again? Or was this a genuine “sampling” effort made by the band ahead of time? Either way, giving songwriting royalties to the estate of Peter Allen was a smart move.
Why do successful artists do this? Why don’t they scrap a song once they learn that it is too similar to another song? How does a song go from demo to recording to radio without someone on the line saying, “Hey, this sounds like…”?
One can extrapolate the reasoning in the examples of Coldplay pretty easily: because the songs were going to be massive hits.
It doesn’t take a genius to hear a song like “Viva La Vida” and know that it is going to be huge. It’s got everything a modern radio hit needs to be successful, especially when the song is by a band like Coldplay which already has a radio presence and platinum records under its belt. The band, its management, its label, and even its lawyers probably all knew “Viva La Vida” was a rip-off, but they went ahead and released it anyway. Coldplay did it for one simple reason: the amount of money the song was going to make justified how much it would have to pay out when it got sued.
Major corporations do this all the time when it comes to the legality of their business. Corporate banks will intentionally and willfully break laws, knowing that the amount of money they’ll make in the process will more than cover any fees they’ll have to pay when they are caught. Coldplay (and Ed Sheeran) most likely used the same logic when releasing material they know is lifted.
Ask yourself this question: when was the last time you heard about a small-time band getting sued by a bigger band for plagiarism? It doesn’t happen much! Reps for Coldplay aren’t going from club to club looking for bands that are playing a song that sounds a lot like “Yellow,” because doing so would be a waste of time. Even if they sent a cease-and-desist letter or tried to sue the group, what does that get them? It’s not like they’re going to make any money off an unsigned pub band, and they’ll forever be known as the mega group that taunts smaller acts.
No, the only time you hear about plagiarism in rock music is when smaller groups are ripped off by bigger groups because they know they’ll get money out of the deal. Joe Satriani isn’t exactly hurting for cash, but he’s certainly not filling the arenas that Coldplay does. He probably lept for joy when he heard “Viva La Vida” for the first time on the radio, because he knew he was going to make bank.
Besides, some of the most incredible songs ever written are the results of plagiarism. “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by The Verve is pretty much universally hailed as one of the greatest singles of all time, and it was completely lifted from an orchestral arrangement of “The Last Time” by the Rolling Stones. Here, listen for yourself:
Yeah, The Verve definitely committed some plagiarism, but are we really going to complain when that plagiarism gave us one of the most beautiful songs our generation has produced? Of course not! If we did, we’d also have to give up the thousands of other songs that were also lifted from other artists.
I’m a product of my record collection. I don’t claim to be a fan of original thought. If I learned to play the guitar by strumming along to the Sex Pistols, or the Kinks, or the Beatles, what do you think I’m going to sound like? I’m not an artist like Kate Bush is an artist. I took my cue from punk in the late ’70s when it was like, ‘You get off your ass and you do something for yourself.’ I don’t give a fuck about the way people think I write.
Wise words, Noel. Wise words.