... I’m not sure how I feel about serial borrower Ed Sheeran winning his preemptive suit against being accused of plagiarism in his song “Shape of You”. To begin with, plagiarism is the act of taking someone else’s work and passing it off as your own - unless you take a whole work, music and lyrics, and copy it reproducing it as yours, we only have matters of degree (and wealthy lawyers). Further complicated by music, lyrics and the original recording all having their own separate legal protections, establishing the extent to which ‘influence’ becomes something more than just influence is very difficult (and very lucrative if you’re a music business lawyer). I make no apologies for referring to Sheeran as a ‘serial borrower’, he regularly borrows from other songs by his own admission - in Shape of You he has acknowledged borrowing from TLC’s ‘Scrubs’ , though only, apparently, after threatened action did he add the writers to his song’s credits. It’s likely that this prompted the threat of action over the "oh-I, oh-I" hook and the preemptive legal strike that Sheeran has taken to nullify it. In the case of the TLC borrow, Sheeran can be found on YouTube explaining that he thought it would be ‘cool to use and reference it’- but he didn’t take the usual sample route. Witnesses called, in this later court action, to attest to Sheeran’s skill and speed as a songwriter established his being just that - a writer of original songs - but no-one could recall who it was that came up with that “oh-I” hook. It’s here, of course, that the trial of originality, or lack of, becomes pointless for all but lawyers. Songwriters and composers all have a wealth of influences called on consciously or subconsciously when creating. Choosing a chord progression, tempo, key etc puts you on a path trodden by many before you, just as choosing to sing about love starts a process of limiting the choice of lyrics that will work and rhyme, the amount of choice, though finite, is huge. Comparisons though, are inevitable, but so is the temptation to follow a similar path to something you admire.
With Sheeran though, it’s nothing new, hence, I imagine, his announcement that future songwriting sessions will be subject to CCTV - though its hard to see how a filmed session can be verified as ‘actual proof’ of originality (lawyers will already be at work on this). Since one of his recent songwriting sessions turned out three songs all subject to plagiarism actions - Shape of You plus two co-writes for other artists - getting the legalities covered up front would seem a good idea. Not to say that Sheeran is alone in his tribulations, it’s becoming a minefield for songwriters. Sheeran though does have form - ‘Photograph’ may or may not have borrowed a chorus from Matt Cardle, we can’t say as it was settled out of court. ‘Thinking Out Loud’ however is an interesting one.
‘Thinking Out Loud’ is undeniably close to Marvin Gaye’s ‘Get It On’ and another Sheeran song that’s been tested in court. Twice in fact, by different copyright owners. There is absolutely no similarity in the lyrics but the essential riff, a I-iii-IV-V progression is the same. Then again, the progression is familiar from hits for Buddy Holly, The Beachboys and Van Morrison. The tight, soul feel though, especially the drums, makes it difficult for any musician not to hear the Marvin Gaye song in Sheeran’s hit. More than borrowing a a feel and using a very common progression, ‘Thinking Out Loud’ sounds very much like the sort of recycling current producers are prone to do (load a hit song into the DAW, analyse its structure, tempo, BPM and re-use, creatively). Sheeran’s producer here played drums on the song.The story of the Sheeran song is interesting - Amy Wadge, an early collaborator with Sheeran, and later writer of the soundtrack for Keeping Faith, including Faith’s Song, was chilling out with Sheeran and played a few chords that grabbed his attention. Sheeran says the song was written in twenty minutes and influenced by his desire for something ‘in the Van Morrison style’, which Sheeran has acknowledge as an influence. One of the songs that uses I-iii-IV-V in a similar way is Van Morrison’s ‘Bright Side of the Road’, and also the chorus to ‘Crazy Love’. Songs written with proven catchy melodies and progressions, like many others before and after, and when you learn your craft singing work by other ‘masters’ it's bound to rub off.
The law has a set remedy for unacknowledged copying, and the music business has an established ‘code’ for using ‘samples’ and quoting others lyrics. I don’t think we need precedents set that could allow high value artists to shut down small artists whose work they may have deliberately plundered. I don’t think that has happened here, it’s an issue -was an issue - about one short riff, a rising pentatonic motif that’s probably used by many others and the law has made a judgment that reflects that. Any one member of the songwriting team of, I believe, three, might well have heard it used in a similar way without consciously realising it. Where writers do use a beat or sample of something they do know, permissions are routinely requested and credit duly given - no record company wants to be in the position where they might be sued for millions.
Around twenty two million songs are produced each year, as quoted in court during the Sheeran case, supporting the contention that degrees of similarity are bound to occur. Other sources put this at thirty three million. I suspect these figures are very inflated and don’t take into account duplications in various listings - as a quick check of my iTunes library suggests. Album releases though do appear to be into six figures on an annual basis. It makes you wonder why there aren’t more suggestions of ‘borrowing’… then Google and YouTube confirms that there are more than you can imagine. Here I am on a mission to get just one song published and every time I play through I find more similarities… watch this space for developments on this journey into song publishing.
Oh, and “Ginger Songs” is in no way an attempt to cash-in on Mr Sheeran!