Ed Sheeran wins landmark copyright court case, but not for the first time
A court case, new album and a funeral; it was quite the week for Ed Sheeran
Last week, on Thursday 4th March 2023, Ed Sheeran won the court case that has been the top talk of the music industry. Singers, writers, producers, composers, record labels, and the rest, held their breath as they waited to find out whether the industry, and their creative process, was altered forever.
While the case seemed to dominate entertainment headlines, for Sheeran, it was also the week of his latest album, ‘Subtract’. This is the 6th album from the singer and seems to round off his string of mathematical album titles unless we can expect '%’ or ‘Ω’ to be on the way.
At 14 tracks long, (with 4 extra deluxe songs), the album is an emotional, sincere capsule of some of the tougher moments he has experienced in recent years. To announce the album in March, he shared a moving post to his socials disclosing a little of the story behind it. He explained how, in just under a month, he’d replaced all the original songs meant for ‘Subtract’, that he’d worked on for years, with new ones. These new ones were more representative of who he was and where he was in his life. It’s full of heartbreaking tributes to his late friend Jamal Edwards, unfaltering love to his family and waves of ocean imagery (seriously, take a shot every time he references the sea in some way- we counted 32 times, so maybe don’t do that).
What should have been an exciting release week, was instead the week of a tiring, and frankly needless, legal battle. The singer was accused of copying Marvin Gaye’s ‘Let’s Get It On’ in his track ‘Thinking Out Loud’ due to similarities in the chord progressions. However, as his lawyer explained, these were ‘basic musical building blocks’, and not unique to Gaye’s song as many musicians used them before him. On Thursday, the jury decided that he was not liable; Sheeran had won.
This isn’t the first time that he has been caught up in a case like this. In 2022, it was his chart-topping hit ‘Shape of You’ that was the subject. The judge ruled that he ‘neither deliberately nor subconsciously’ copied grime artist Sami Chokri’s song ‘Oh Why’. But it’s also not just Sheeran who has been hit with such accusations as artists like Dua Lipa and Taylor Swift have faced similar copyright claims, so why does it keep on happening?
‘There has always been a trend in the industry that very successful songs will have lawsuits against them and people contesting,’ says Aaron Horn, Grammy nominated co-writer and co-producer of Doja Cat’s ‘Woman’. He explained that ‘America has a culture of litigation, and this combined with the huge revenue that popular music can generate means that we will continue to see court cases’.
Nonetheless, Horn is hopeful that Sheeran’s latest court case will set a new precedent for the industry; ‘anyone will think twice before going to “shake the Ed Sheeran piggybank”’. Of course, it was only a year ago when Sheeran had uttered a similar hope that the ruling in his favour would avoid future ‘baseless claims like this’, but here he was, last week, back in a courtroom.
In many ways, it seems history has repeated itself for the singer, not only facing another trial but also dealing with tragic personal circumstances. In a speech after the judge’s ruling, he explained that he had to miss his grandmother’s funeral to be there. And, not too dissimilarly, in an interview with Zane Lowe for Apple Music, he recalls how, during the 2022 trial, his life outside of the court room had become exceptionally challenging.
‘I was in the court room; the first day Shane died, ten days before Jamal had died, ten days before that I’d been told Cherry had this tumour and she’s pregnant’, he said.
Sheeran described it as the worst month of his life as he dealt with both grief and concern for his wife and unborn child. Having to sit in a court room during all of this could only have made matters worse.
Speaking about the claimants in the trial he explained that ‘they would get up and talk about like their personal struggles’ and whilst he could ‘understand their feelings’, he ultimately felt he wasn’t given the same consideration. Instead, he just had to ‘zip’ and pretend that ‘nothing is wrong’, hiding what was really going on.
He felt that ‘in that moment’, he ‘wasn’t viewed as a human being’, but an ‘entity’. We see it all too often with celebrities not being treated like ordinary people. In the media they might be made out to be malicious and evil for what is probably an honest mistake. In a society where we’ve never had more access to celebrities’ lives than we do now, it’s too easy to fall into a trap of expecting and asking for too much from them.
It was also this tough month that instigated the creation of newly released ‘Subtract’, a record which Sheeran says is ‘definitely the most human’ that he’s ever been.
‘I think it’s my most uncomfortable record’
You can hear the honesty and humanity in every track, with ones such as ‘Life Goes On’ and ‘End of Youth’ both seemingly describing his experience with grief in a way so many will be familiar with. In ‘Sycamore’, the verses depict an idyllic life, creating family memories in a sunny setting, contrasted with the pre-chorus describing the feeling of finding out devastating news. Of course, it also wouldn’t be a Sheeran album without a few love songs and ‘No Strings’ is sure to be the next popular pick for first dances.
It’s refreshing for an artist, especially male, to be so honest about their personal struggles. And one can only hope that Sheeran, and all music artists, will not be hit with more ‘baseless’ copyright claims. For the sake of songwriting, an art in its own right, it needs to come to an end.