Ed Sheeran — a wedding singer who seemingly won a Faustian contest of mediocrity that elevated him to super-stardom — is facing legal trouble.
Given his repetitive songwriting and greasy "dude, let me copy your homework" vibe, it doesn't come as much of a surprise that he may or may not dabble in plagiarism.
On Friday, a US judge rejected Sheeran's call for the court to drop a legal case accusing him of copying parts of Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On." District Judge Louis Stanton said he found "substantial similarities between several of the two works' musical elements." Now, the case will go before a jury to be decided. According to the BBC, "The action has been brought against Sheeran, Sony/ATV Music Publishing and Atlantic Records by the estate and heirs of the late producer Ed Townsend, who co-wrote Let's Get It On with Gaye." The suit states that Sheeran and his co-writers "copied and exploited, without authorization or credit, the 'Let's Get it On' composition," copying various elements "including but not limited to the melody, rhythms, harmonies, drums, bass line, backing chorus, tempo, syncopation, and looping." They're asking for $100 million in damages.
The song in question is Sheeran's 2014 number-one hit, "Thinking Out Loud," a love song so generic that it could have been written about any human being that ever lived as a musical product of any time period since the invention of the guitar. If you listen to "Let's Get It On" and "Thinking Out Loud" in quick succession, you're not struck by their similarities, but by the extraordinary contrast between the two songs. Marvin Gayes' song is a timeless, soulful masterpiece; while, in comparison, Sheeran's song seems like a tepid lament from a Tinder date who's just tired of going to the movies by himself.
However, if you can look past the disparity in quality between the two hits, you may recognize a few familiar moments in Sheeran's song, as the two songs share many of the same chord progressions and have a similar groove. However, as Power Station Studio's Audio Engineer Joshua Taylor put it to Popdust, "90% of pop songs are written at basically the same tempo and all use the same two or three chord progressions, so really cases like this have to be about the melody" — which means that it's unlikely that these similarities are enough to validly claim plagiarism, since the songs are melodically very different.
Unfortunately for everyone's favorite lazy-eyed Raggedy Andy, when a case like this goes in front of a jury, the facts of musical composition tend to lose importance. For example, in 2015, Gaye's estate won $5.3 million after a jury decided Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams' 2013 hit "Blurred Lines" infringed upon Marvin Gaye's 1977 composition "Got to Give It Up." As Variety puts it, "Jurors in such cases are rarely musical experts and similarities based on gut — or as the 'Blurred Lines' decision put it, 'feel' — instead of musical notation can carry the day."
That and Ed Sheeran's case have raised concerns throughout the music industry about who should be allowed to decide questions of musical plagiarism, as the lack of musical expertise among the average jury leaves artists open to possibly undeserved legal prosecution. After all, should Ed Sheeran really be punished for making indistinct, soulless music that sounds like every other song you've ever heard?
Brooke Ivey Johnson is a Brooklyn based writer, playwright, and human woman. To read more of her work visit her blog or follow her twitter @BrookeIJohnson.
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