Copyright Culture | Zoey Preston
“Shape of You” might be Ed Sheeran’s most iconic and popular song, hitting over 3 billion streams on Spotify since its release in 2017. However, it was recently at the center of a copyright lawsuit for apparently plagiarizing Sami Chokri’s “Oh Why”. The fact that Chokri’s song was released 2 years earlier and the striking similarities between the songs––both choruses follow the exact same melody––make it easy to see why Sheeran was accused of plagiarism. However, Sheeran ended up winning the case on April 6, the judge ruling that he did not in fact intentionally plagiarize Chokri’s song. After the case closed, Sheeran took to Instagram to comment on the situation. He said, “Coincidences are bound to happen when 60,000 songs are being released every day on Spotify.”
He’s right––we’ve recently seen other popular artists like Dua Lipa, Ariana Grande, Katy Perry, and Pharrell Williams get sued for alleged plagiarism on their hits. Even Olivia Rodrigo gave Hayley Williams and Joshua Farrow of Paramore songwriting credits on “Good 4 U” when she was accused of copying their song “Misery Business”.
See, copyright in music is strange and messy with lots of gray areas. There are literally twelve notes, twelve possible keys, and over 80 million tracks on Spotify. Intentionally or not, some songs are bound to have similarities in melodies and chord progressions because the margin in which musicians work is so slim. When does coincidence cross the line of plagiarism? Can someone own a melody?
It depends on who you ask.
One Direction notoriously borrowed melodies from classic songs. Listen to the choruses of “Midnight Memories”, then listen to the chorus “Pour Some Sugar on Me” by Def Leppard. They’re not identical, but noticeably similar. However, Def Leppard did not feel the need to pursue any legal action, and guitarist Vivian Campbell told Billboard, “The chords are one-four-five. Those are the blues. You don't get more basic than that. I think what's more reminiscent of the Leppard thing is the production, the sound, the vocals, the reverb, and the way it's assembled. That is very flattering that all of a sudden these kids think it's a cool sound. I think a lot of people of their generation aren't going to connect their music to ours.”
That’s not the only example. “Best Song Ever” sounds like The Who’s “Baba O'Riley”, but like Def Leppard, The Who did not choose legal action, arguing the similarity stems from the same three basic chords commonly used in pop music. Harry Styles literally admitted to lifting the opening riff to “Live While We’re Young” from The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, saying “it’s kind of on purpose”. “What Makes You Beautiful” sounds like “Summer Nights” from Grease. It seems like the list is never-ending, but none of the artists they “plagiarized” ever felt the need to sue, though they were well aware of what One Direction was doing.
Was One Direction plagiarizing or taking inspiration from the classics? The artists they “stole” from said inspiration. There’s no doubt that One Direction’s music has a timeless pop-rock feel, and the reason for that is because their songwriters took the things that made the classics great and added a modern, boyband spin. One Direction wasn’t the only ones doing this either.
Copyright claims are no new thing, however. Music copyright suits have a complex and messy history going back to the emergence of the modern music industry. One of the first large-scale copyright infringement cases in the music industry was between former Beatle George Harrison and the girl-group quartet The Chiffons.
After the Beatles dissolved in 1970, George Harrison quickly became the first ex-Beatle to have a record reach number one on the charts with “My Sweet Lord”. The Shiffron’s 1962 song “He’s So Fine” follows a melody with identical harmonies, though, and they sued Harrison. They actually won the case and Harrison was found guilty of “subconsciously” plagiarizing their song. The writers of “He’s So Fine” owned the melody.
“Copying” in music is a weird mix of inspiration, plagiarism, coincidence, and anywhere in between. Is it right to be sued for something in your subconscious or a coincidence? What does this mean for songwriting in the future, and can notes and chords even be considered “property”? At the end of the day, songwriters are only human, and while some might purposefully copy others, mistakes do happen. Nobody’s perfect, the industry isn’t perfect, and all we can do is continue to create.