WHERE THERE’S A HIT THERE’S A WRIT
The limitation period for bringing a copyright infringement claim in the UK is six years from the date when the cause of action arose. After 1 August 1989 for an original literary, dramatic, musical, or artistic work lasts from creation of the work until 70 years after the end of the year in which the author dies (section 12(2), CDPA). If the work is computer-generated, copyright expires 50 years from the end of the year in which the work was made (section 12(7), CDPA).
To establish infringement, the claimant needs to prove each of the following conditions:
- An infringing act took place in the UK.
- The alleged infringing work is derived from the copyright work.
- The alleged infringing work is a substantial reproduction of the copyright work.
The burden of proof is on the claimant. If the defendant denies copying, but had access to the work, and there is a sufficient degree of objective similarity between the copyright work and the alleged infringement, there is a rebuttable presumption that copying took place.
Case involves Ed Sheeran’s alleged copying of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On”.
In 2017, the British singer was sued by the heirs of Ed Townsend, Gaye’s co-writer of the 1973 soul classic. Kathryn Townsend Griffin, his daughter, is the plaintiff leading the lawsuit.
They claim that Sheeran’s 2014 hit “Thinking Out Loud” has “striking similarities” to “Let’s Get It On” and “overt common elements” that violate the song’s copyright.
Sheeran’s attorneys have said the songs’ undeniable structural symmetry points only to the foundations of popular music.
“The two songs share versions of a similar and unprotectable chord progression that was freely available to all songwriters,” they said in a court filing.
Sheeran himself has previously appeared to acknowledge similarities between the songs, toggling between the tracks during a concert in 2014, with the clip later shared on YouTube.
YouTube clips of him segueing into his song with Gaye’s hit may go on to form part of the evidence in the case. Townsend’s family’s lawyers argue that artists including Boyz II Men have performed seamless mashups of the two songs on stage, with Sheeran himself even segueing into “Let’s Get It On” during live performances of “Thinking Out Loud.”
Gaye’s estate is not involved in the lawsuit, which names Sheeran’s label Atlantic Records and Sony/ATV Music Publishing also as defendants.
Sheeran’s co-writer on the song, Amy Wadge, has not been named in the case.
The lawsuit is being heard in the Manhattan federal courtroom overseen by 95 year old Judge Louis L Stanton.
The case is expected to last for a week.
The jury in the case are asked to only take in the raw elements of melody, harmony and rhythm – rather than the lyrics – when considering the legal similarities between the two songs.
In 2018 Gaye’s estate received about $5m (about £3.9m) when a judge ruled that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ song Blurred Lines copied Gaye’s Got To Give It Up, making it among the most significant copyright cases in recent decades.
Ed Sheeran has been the target for several copyright lawsuits involving his work…
In 2017, Sheeran settled a £16m copyright infringement lawsuit over his song Photograph after musicians Martin Harrington and Thomas Leonard claimed his song was similar to a track they wrote in 2009.
Last year, Sheeran won his High Court copyright trial against two songwriters who claimed he ripped off part of one of their songs for his huge 2017 hit Shape Of You. He was accused of plagiarising his song “Shape of You” from Sami Chokri’s 2015 track “Oh Why”.
In a statement following the judge’s verdict, Sheeran’s lawyers Simon Goodbody and Andrew Forbes said: “The judgment is an emphatic vindication of the creative genius of Ed, Johnny and Steve – as they have always maintained, they created ‘Shape Of You’ together, without copying from anyone else.”
At the time, Sheeran said such copyright claims were “way too common” and “made with the idea that a settlement will be cheaper than taking it to court, even if there is no basis for the claim”. He said such cases were “really damaging to the songwriting industry”.
COPYRIGHT LAWSUITS: THE 10 BIGGEST COURT BATTLES IN MUSIC HISTORY
Revealing a fine line between inspiration and plagiarism, these landmark copyright lawsuits have defined the course of music history.
CHUCK BERRY VS THE BEACH BOYS (1963)
Sweet Little Sixteen (1958) and Surfin’ USA (1963)
In 1963, The Beach Boys released Surfin’ USA, an instant classic that captured the optimistic essence of the West Coast surf scene. The song was, however, a lift of Chuck Berry’s Sweet Little Sixteen, with new lyrics written by Beach Boys Brian Wilson and Mike Love.
When approached, The Beach Boys’ then manager (and Brian Wilson’s father), Murray Wilson, immediately gave Berry the copyright to the song in order to avoid a lawsuit. Berry now receives credit alongside Wilson for the tune.
THE CHIFFONS VS GEORGE HARRISON (1976)
He’s So Fine (1963) and My Sweet Lord (1971)
Richard Owen, of the US District Court in Manhattan”it is clear that My Sweet Lord is the very same song as He’s So Fine with different words, and Harrison had access to He’s So Fine.” Harrison paid $1,599,987 in damages, later writing the sardonic This Song about the experience: “This song ain’t black or white and as far as I know/Don’t infringe on anyone’s copyright.” So far, no copyright lawsuits have emerged over that one…
QUEEN AND DAVID BOWIE VS VANILLA ICE (ICE ICE BABY) (1990)
Under Pressure (1981) and Ice Ice Baby (1990)
The two parties settled out of court for an undisclosed sum, but Vanilla Ice revealed that buying the copyright to the song himself was actually cheaper than fighting the case in court. So that’s exactly what he did.
MARVIN GAYE VS ROBIN THICKE AND PHARRELL WILLIAMS (2014)
Got To Give It Up (1971) and Blurred Lines (2013)
The jury found Thicke and Williams guilty of copyright infringement, initially rewarding the Gaye estate with $7.4 million (eventually reduced to $5.3 million) and half the royalties from Blurred Lines. In 2018, the court maintained their ruling in favour of Gaye’s estate, handing down a final judgement of $4.98 million in damages, as well as interest on the owed amount, and 50 per cent of all future royalties acquired from Blurred Lines. A landmark verdict among copyright lawsuits, the Blurred Lines case has established a new legal precedent in which copyright-infringement cases can be based not just on a song’s musical score, but on its groove and overall vibe.
The New Seekers Vs. Oasis
Oasis made a huge splash in the summer of 1994 with their single Shakermaker, but it wasn’t long before people pointed out that the opening line was VERY similar to the song I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing.
Originally written in 1971 for a Coke ad, it was later a huge hit for The New Seekers and the Gallaghers had to come to a settlement with the writers – some sources cite half a million dollars. Oasis legend has Noel now saying: “We prefer Pepsi”.
The Verve vs. The Rolling Stones
The Rolling Stones sued the Verve for their song “Bittersweet Symphony” which contained a sample from “The Last Time.” Originally, the Verve had licensed the use of 5 notes from their song in exchange for 50% of their royalties. The Rolling Stones claimed that they used a larger portion than was agreed upon. The court ruled in their favour. As a result, they forfeited all of their royalties and publishing rights. They were sued again later for their mechanical rights. Verve had to give up all their rights to the song until May of 2019, when the Rolling Stones signed over all their publishing rights for that song to the Verve.