Ed Sheeran, intellectual property law, and the sound of copyright infringement

Ed Sheeran, intellectual property law, and the sound of copyright infringement

How do courts decide cases such as whether 'Thinking Out Loud' copied Marvin Gaye's 'Let's Get It On'?


Ed has had several of his songs come under scrutiny in recent years.
Photo: Reuters

What do Pharrell Williams, 90s rapper Vanilla Ice and Ed Sheeran have in common? They’ve all been accused of plagiarism.

Vanilla Ice and Williams were both involved in some of the most high-profile copyright infringement lawsuits of the past 50 years. The 1980s rapper attempted to delineate his Ice Ice Baby from Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure - it didn’t work - and Bowie and Queen eventually received songwriting credit and royalties.

Williams and singer Robin Thicke were found liable for copyright infringement in 2015 when a jury ruled in favour of Marvin Gaye’s estate, which had argued Blurred Lines was too similar to Gaye’s Got to Give It Up.

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Sheeran, no stranger to accusations of copyright infringement himself, has had several of his songs fall under scrutiny in the past two years alone. Shape of You was accused of having a lyrically similar rhythm to TLC’s classic No Scrubs, earning the latter’s writers, Kandi Burruss and Tameka Cottle, credits on Sheeran’s song.

He also settled a US$20 million lawsuit with British X Factor winner Matt Cardle over a “note for note ” plagiarism of Cardle’s song Amazing; Sheeran’s track is called Photograph. Two Australian songwriters settled with Sheeran, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill over their song The Rest of Our Life - a record that Sheeran co-wrote - that the writers said sounded nearly identical to a song they wrote in 2015, When I Found You.

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And two months ago, a judge ordered that a jury will decide whether Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud copied Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On.

Most music copyright infringement cases are settled out of court with shared writing credit - and royalties - as it’s extremely rare for these types of cases to make it to a jury. When it gets to that point, determining fault can be tricky.

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