Navigating the Blurred Lines of Music Copyright Laws: The Ed Sheeran Case and Its Implications for Songwriters

In recent years, high-profile cases involving some of the most prominent names in music have emphasized the complexity of establishing the originality of musical works and the challenge of defining clear boundaries between inspiration and plagiarism.

Ed Sheeran

Photo Credit: Shutterstock

One of the most recent cases to attract public attention is the copyright infringement lawsuit filed against Ed Sheeran’s hit song “Thinking Out Loud.” The song became a massive success upon its release, reaching the top of the charts in several countries and earning multiple awards, including Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance. Its popularity and recognition further fueled the attention surrounding the copyright infringement case. The family of Ed Townsend, who co-wrote Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” accused Sheeran of copying the chord progression of the 1973 hit. Nevertheless, a Manhattan jury recently determined that Sheeran did not infringe on the copyright of Gaye’s classic song. Sheeran’s defense successfully argued that the chord progression used in “Thinking Out Loud” was a standard tool in songwriting and had been used in multiple songs prior to “Let’s Get It On.” Sheeran argued that merely having similar-sounding elements did not constitute copyright infringement and cited numerous examples of distinct songs that would be deemed too similar under the plaintiffs’ logic. The jury ultimately ruled in favor of Sheeran, a victory for him and the music industry as a whole. This verdict is a notable victory for Sheeran and his legal team, who argued that the compositional elements and melodies in the two songs were different.

This case adds to the growing list of music copyright lawsuits that have come to a conclusion in recent years, each with varying outcomes. For instance, in 2015, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were sued for $7.4 million for borrowing from Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” for their hit song “Blurred Lines.” The case was tried in California, which has a different legal standard for determining copyright infringement compared to the standard used in the Sheeran case, which was tried in New York. The case turned into a five-year legal battle that ultimately saw the judgment reduced to $5.3 million. In addition, the ruling awarded Gaye’s family 50% of the royalties from “Blurred Lines” moving forward.

Interestingly, several other popular songs have utilized the same chord progression as “Let’s Get It On” and “Thinking Out Loud.” Examples include “Nothin’ on You” by B.o.B featuring Bruno Mars, “Stand by Me” by Ben E. King, and “I’m Yours” by Jason Mraz. These songs demonstrate how a similar chord progression can be reinterpreted and expressed differently, showcasing the creative possibilities within the constraints of a familiar structure.

Conversely, Taylor Swift encountered a similar copyright case in 2017 with her chart-topping anthem “Shake It Off,” which was eventually settled and dismissed in the past year. Another notable instance involved Led Zeppelin, who faced a lawsuit in 2014 from the estate of the late Randy California, former lead guitarist of the 1960s band Spirit. The estate claimed that Led Zeppelin had lifted part of Spirit’s single “Taurus” in their iconic tune “Stairway to Heaven.” However, a 2020 appeals court ruled in favor of Led Zeppelin.

These high-profile cases not only underscore the complexity of determining the originality of musical works but also illuminate the challenges associated with clearly demarcating the boundaries between inspiration and plagiarism. It is crucial for songwriters and creators to be cognizant of the potential legal implications surrounding their work and the ever-evolving legal landscape of music copyright. As songwriters navigate this landscape, there are steps they can take to safeguard themselves and their creative works:

  1. Be aware of existing works: Familiarize yourself with the musical landscape and study popular songs within your genre. This knowledge will help you avoid unintentional similarities and ensure that your work stands out as original.
  2. Research and Stay Informed: Familiarize yourself with existing musical works in your genre and the legal precedents established by past copyright cases. Conduct thorough research to ensure your compositions are unique and distinct, reducing the risk of inadvertently infringing upon someone else’s copyright.
  3. Document your creative process: Maintain detailed records of your songwriting process, including lyric drafts, melody ideas, and chord progressions. This documentation can serve as evidence of your originality in case of any disputes.
  4. Seek legal advice: Consult with a knowledgeable entertainment attorney who specializes in music copyright law. They can provide personalized guidance tailored to your specific needs, review contracts and licensing agreements, and help you navigate the intricacies of copyright law to protect your creations.
  5. Register Your Copyright: Consider registering your songs with the appropriate copyright office in your jurisdiction. This step provides additional legal protection and establishes a public record of your ownership, making it easier to assert your rights if infringement occurs.
  6. Collaborate with Care: If you collaborate with other songwriters or musicians, clearly define the ownership and rights associated with each person’s contributions. A well-drafted collaboration agreement can prevent potential disputes and ensure that all parties involved are aware of their respective rights and responsibilities.
  7. Understand Fair Use: Familiarize yourself with the concept of fair use, which allows limited use of copyrighted material for purposes such as commentary, criticism, or parody. Understanding fair use can help you distinguish between acceptable inspirations and potential infringements.
  8. License Your Work: Consider licensing your songs through reputable music licensing agencies or platforms. Licensing ensures that you receive appropriate compensation for the use of your music and provides an added layer of protection by establishing contractual terms for its usage.

As the music industry continues to evolve, understanding and respecting copyright laws is paramount for songwriters and creators. By staying informed and taking proactive measures, you can safeguard your creative works and contribute to a thriving and respectful musical landscape. Our team of experienced attorneys at The Berglund Group is dedicated to providing comprehensive guidance on music copyright law. We recognize the significance of staying up-to-date on the latest legal developments in the entertainment industry. Contact us today to learn how we can assist you in protecting your intellectual property and navigating the complex landscape of music copyright.