Will Sheeran’s court win be the right note for songwriters?

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01:29

Multimillionaire singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran’s successful legal defense against allegations of musical plagiarism surrounding a hit song “Shape of You” reopened the thorny issue of copyright infringement.

Sheeran, estimated to be worth at least $250 million, was unsuccessfully sued by grime artist Sami Chokri, who plays Sami Switch, and music producer Ross O’Donoghue, who had argued that the main hook of the song had been copied from their 2015 song. ‘Oh why.’

Following this week’s victory in the High Court in London, Sheeran said false copyright claims against songwriters are hurting the music industry. “Claims like this are all too common now and it has become a culture where a claim is made with the idea that a settlement will be cheaper than taking it to court even if there is no no basis for claim,” he said in a video posted to Twitter.

So what is music plagiarism, how prevalent is it, and is Sheeran right?

Ed Sheeran has issued a call to action to defend leading songwriters against false allegations of plagiarism. /AFP/Valery Ax

Ed Sheeran has issued a call to action to defend leading songwriters against false allegations of plagiarism. /AFP/Valery Ax

Plagiarism is the legal term for presenting someone else’s work or ideas as your own, with or without their consent, incorporating it into your work without full acknowledgment. It can apply to all published and unpublished material, whether in handwritten, printed or electronic form, and can be deliberate, reckless or even unintentional.

Canada-based entertainment attorney Kurt Dahl said CGTN Europe the issue is complex. “Courts want to know ‘is there a substantial similarity?’ But it’s a legal term with no clear and concise definition. What often happens in these cases is that people called musicologists are hired to break down each song in a very scientific way. They look at the chord structure, the lyrics, the melody, even the tempo, the type of drum beats, all that kind of stuff, and see what similarities there are.

“Sometimes these cases go to a jury, if both parties want to. It’s kind of like the smell test. If you play two songs side by side to someone who doesn’t know anything about music industry, it gives you a good idea of ​​whether the songs are similar.”

Some have suggested that the limited number of chord sequences available in pop music could make songwriting a potential minefield, especially when cases of plagiarism have been reported on musical phrases from a mere handful of notes.

Pop plagiarism is easy to spot, says rock veteran Wilko Johnson. /Paul Crowther

Pop plagiarism is easy to spot, says rock veteran Wilko Johnson. /Paul Crowther

English rock legend Wilko Johnson has been writing songs for almost half a century. The original songwriter of Dr. Feelgood, Johnson enjoyed late-career success when his 2014 collaborative album with Roger Daltrey, ‘Go home’became the second best-selling British album that year.

Johnson told CGTN Europe that blatant plagiarism in pop music is easy to spot.

“We can all tell if something is plagiarized because pop music itself is so simple. A hit pop single can be based on one phrase, and if a record is successful, other people will try to repeat that and do something similar, but sometimes they might get too close to the original.Of course, if you plagiarize a well-known song, people will notice and publishers will take action.

The singer, who overcame a diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer ten years ago after undergoing pioneering surgery, continues to tour at the age of 74. He insists he never crossed the line in his own compositions. “A lot of times you write songs and there’s a song that you particularly like, it has a special magic for you. So you can try to write something that does that. I certainly did, I think, but not to the point of copying a melody or a lyric.”

Johnson was occasionally plagiarized from his own work but never resorted to legal action. “Many years ago another band released a live album containing a song that was a note-for-note elevator, including the harmonica solo, from Dr Feelgood’s ’20 meters behind.’ It was a little sickening because most of the rest of the record were cover versions, all appropriately accredited. In the end, I told the editors and the band agreed not to do it again.”

Dahl worries that the music industry, especially in the United States, is becoming increasingly litigious. “I think some of these cases are absolute rubbish, totally frivolous. In some cases, the artist bringing the case is doing it to gain exposure. ‘simply act of a cash grab, where the party bringing it claims that because it’s painful to take it to court, maybe the accused artist could just settle.’

He believes there is a danger that if too many of these cases are successful, it could hamper the songwriting process.

“Copyright protection is a pendulum that always swings,” Dahl said. “Ed’s point is that this is going to ruin the music industry to some degree. In the same breath, that exact copyright is what protects his songs from infringement. You want protection, but not to the point of hampering creativity.”

Former Beatle George Harrison lost a landmark court case in 1976, after being found guilty of “unconscious” plagiarism. /Donaldson/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

Former Beatle George Harrison lost a landmark court case in 1976, after being found guilty of “unconscious” plagiarism. /Donaldson/Michael Ochs Archive/Getty Images

There have been many famous cases of musical plagiarism in court. Here are a few:

Sweet Jesus by George Harrison – The former Beatle’s 1970 single topped the charts in 15 countries. A lawsuit has been filed by Bright Tunes Music Corporation alleging copyright infringement of the song by the late Ronnie Mack ‘He’s so good.’ The proceedings continued until 1976, when Harrison was found to have unknowingly copied the song and was ordered to pay damages.

Blurred lines by Pharrel Williams and Robin Thicke – A 2018 court ruling found that the song, already controversial for its explicit lyrical content, infringed the copyright of ‘Must give it up‘ by the late Marvin Gaye, whose family was awarded $5.3 million in damages.

shakemaker by Oasis – a huge hit on their 1994 debut album, the band ended up paying $500,000 in damages after using The New Seekers tune “I would like to teach the world to sing.

stairway to Heaven by Led Zeppelin – Forty-five years after releasing what is considered one of the most iconic rock songs of all time, Led Zeppelin has prevailed in a copyright battle against the estate of Randy Wolfe, who claimed they had scammed ‘Bull,’ the song Wolfe wrote for his band Spirit.

Black Horse by Katy Perry – In March, a US federal appeals court ruled that Perry and his fellow songwriters were not liable to hip-hop artist Flame, who claimed they copied a musical pattern from his song ‘Cries of joy.’

Land below – it was a worldwide hit song for Australian band Men at Work, but in 2010 they lost a case that claimed his flute solo had plagiarized another famous Australian tune – Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree – composed by Marion Sinclair in 1934 for a Girl Guides Jamboree.

Source(s): Reuters

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