Ed Sheeran experiment risks ‘chilling’ musicians, experts fear

Where does music creation stop and piracy begin? British pop king Ed Sheeran is on the receiving end of a civil case in New York, hit for a song he partially copied from Marvin Gaye.

• Read more: Ed Sheeran wins theft case

• Read more: Ed Sheeran threatens to end his life if found guilty of plagiarism

• Read more: Accused burglar Ed Sheeran takes his guitar and sings in court

The implications of the trial’s findings could extend to other areas of music-making, at the risk of “chilling” artists, some musicologists and lawyers warn.

A jury in federal court in Manhattan must decide whether Ed Sheeran’s 2014 global hit “Thinking Out Loud” is a plagiarism of the 1973 soul classic “Let’s Get It On.”

The plaintiffs in this iconic music copyright case are the estates of Ed Townsend, the American musician and producer who co-wrote the song with Marvin Gaye.

They point out “similarities and obvious common elements” between the two songs.

It is the second hearing in a year for the 32-year-old British singer-songwriter, who won a separate court battle at the High Court in London in April 2022, which dismissed allegations that he had copied one of the two musicians’ works. His mega hit “Shape of You”.

Getty Images via AFP

Guitar at court

Sheeran, who has attended the New York hearing since April 24, had to play guitar and sing in court as a sign of good faith.

Cited by the prosecutor, one composer actually declared that the chord progressions of the two songs were almost identical.

So the pop musician played the four main chords of “Thinking Out Loud” in court, confirming that they were very different from “Let’s Get It On.”

The British artist said he wrote the hit in 2014 while “taking a shower” at home with his musical partner Amy Wadge. The song peaked at number two on the Billboard Hot 100 and won a Grammy Award for Best Song in 2016.

Experts fear the danger of the Sheeran trial will be a proliferation of copyright disputes and “paranoia” among musicians who fear copying each other.

“Sheer Coincidence”

“The world I want to live in is that nobody sues anybody for melody or musical similarities because they can easily arise by accident,” Berklee College of Music musicologist Joe Bennett told AFP. Massachusetts (Northeastern United States) .

“It shouldn’t come under copyright protection,” he said.

Appreciating the composition and interpretation of a particular piece of music is particularly subjective: “If you play it in front of a jury, it’s going to go one way or the other,” says Mr. Bennett warns.

The work of the king of the Motown label, African-American Marvin Gaye (1939-1984) was already the subject of a complaint when his family – not a party to the Sheeran case – won against artists Robin Thicke. Pharrell Williams for the similarity between the songs “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up”.

This surprised the music industry and lawyers, who considered many melodic and compositional elements to belong in the public domain.

Getty Images via AFP

“Stairway to Heaven”

In 2020, a US judge ruled that the legendary 1971 title was not a plagiarism in the case of popular British hard rock band Led Zeppelin’s Californian hit “Stairway to Heaven”.

But to Joseph Fishman, a professor of intellectual property law at Vanderbilt University, the Sheeran case risks setting a precedent.

“It chills the way songwriters write: + Will my case end up in court? +”, asks the lawyer.

Notably since 1976, Britain’s George Harrison has been credited with “unwittingly” plagiarizing “He’s So Good” by the Chiffons group for his single “My Sweet Lord.” »

In his memoirs, the former Beatles man later wrote that he suffered from “songwriting paranoia”.

This week, Ed Sheeran hinted that he could walk off stage if ordered to pay damages for plagiarism.

Other composers would have told him “you’ve got to win for us”, and the court, slightly angry, said he would be “finished” in music if Townsend’s successors won.

“I’m very insulted to have someone denigrate him, saying I’ve worked all my life and stolen,” he said at the helm.

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