On May 5th 2023, an American jury ruled found Ed Sheeran (and his co-writer) did not infringe on the copyright of Marvin Gaye’s hit ‘Let’s Get It On’. Gaye’s heirs accused Sheeran’s tune, ‘Thinking Out Loud’ copied a four-chord progression used in ‘Let‘s It On’. Sheeran’s counsel successfully argued that the award-winning artist had only a passing familiarity with Gaye’s tune. Where Sheeran pointed out multiple other songs that use the same disputed four-chord progression. In an interview with CBS News, he stated that the likelihood of two songs having the same chords is more than likely. Sheeran expressed that in this situation, the four chords are popular, and are widely used throughout pop songs.
Copyright is a type of intellectual property law that protects the form of expression of ideas and regulates original literary, dramatic, musical, and artistic works, and subject matter other than works. Copyright gives the owner an exclusive right to reproduce, publish, and perform their work. Infringement of this right occurs when another person copies a substantial part of an original work without the owner’s permission.
Plagiarism Today stated that there has been a rise in copyright disputes in the music industry with would-be plaintiffs feeling emboldened, while would-be defendants are less inclined to fight back. Sheeran’s lawsuit caused concern for songwriters as a ruling in the opposite direction may have resulted in the ownership of music composition’s most basic elements by a small collection of parties. Sheeran has expressed in the past his frustration that “baseless claims” like this are allowed to go to court at all. Referring to an earlier dispute over his song ‘Shape of You‘, Ed expressed to his Instagram followers that “[i]t’s really damaging to the songwriting industry”.
An article by Forbes in 2020 stated that the impact of copyright claims means that anyone who is in the room during a song’s creation is now given credit. This explains why many current pop songs have upwards of 20 writers credited. This impacts the writer’s publishing income, as the royalties generated from the song now more frequently are having to be dispersed amongst a large number of creditors. “You are going to get this with every single pop song from now on… unless it just stops, which I don’t think it does because it’s a big money business to take things to court”, Sheeran said to CBS.
In conclusion, the ruling in Sheeran’s case is a positive step for songwriters, but it is clear that the issue of copyright infringement in the music industry is far from resolved. Songwriters will need to continue to be vigilant in protecting their work, and they will need to be prepared to fight back against baseless claims. If a songwriter is accused of copyright infringement, they should not hesitate to seek legal advice.
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