If you want to sue the British alternative rock band Coldplay for plagiarism, you’d better get in line.
According to NPR’s Brian Unger, three musicians are claiming that their intellectual property was misappropriated by Coldplay in their hit song, “Viva La Vida.” They are Creaky Boards, Joe Satriani, and Yusuf Islam, better known as Cat Stevens. There are links from the NPR site to music on YouTube, so you can make up your own mind.
Cases like this are not uncommon. Years ago, the Chiffons underwent a drawn-out legal battle with George Harrison over the similarities between the Chiffon’s “He’s So Fine” and Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord.” Harrison admitted to “subconsciously copying” the song and was required to pay royalties.
Those who create new songs, movies, and academic treatises are constantly borrowing from the past. This is how new culture is created.
The nursery rhyme, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” is based upon a popular French melody, “Ah Vous dirai-je, Maman” from the mid-1700’s — a melody Mozart appropriated himself to write several variations. The French melody was combined with an English poem and published in 1806, creating the song I sang last night to my 2-year-old daughter. But wait a second, “Twinkle, Twinkle” sounds a lot like “The Alphabet Song“, and also “Ba, Ba, Black Sheep“! Call in the intellectual property lawyers!
And this is Lawrence Lessig’s main argument in his books, “Free Culture” and “Remix“. Culture borrows from the past. If we want individuals to create new culture, individuals need to be able to use, adapt, and remix the work of others.
Now, academic writings have something that music lacks — formal acknowledgments. In order to create new scientific works, academic authors need to reuse the contributions of others, and in doing so, an intellectual acknowledgment (aka a citation) is made. Forget the citation, and you are libel to be accused of the same kind of stealing that musicians accuse Coldplay of doing.
But did Coldplay knowingly steal from Creaky Boards, who may have heard it from Joe Satriani, who may have heard it from Cat Stevens? Popular culture is pretty ubiquitous. A “subconscious” inspiration could have come while ordering a latte at the local Starbucks cafe, shopping for groceries, or while riding in an elevator.
Stealing implies a conscious decision to appropriate that which is not yours, but being inspired by implies the same conscious intent. It is unfortunate that our legal culture has framed reuse in terms of theft rather than borrowing.