The recent court ruling in the case of Ed Sheeran has brought to light some contentious issues around musical inspiration and copyright. Dr. Jadey O’Regan, a pop music expert and lecturer at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music, sheds some light on the matter.
On May 5th, 2023, a US court ruled in favor of Ed Sheeran, dismissing the claim made by Marvin Gaye’s estate that Sheeran’s hit song, “Thinking Out Loud,” was a rip-off of Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”
Sheeran maintained that he drew inspiration from his life and family when writing his music. The case raised questions about the fine line between inspiration and theft in songwriting.
There have been many instances of musical plagiarism in the past. For example, Radiohead’s “Creep” was deemed too similar to The Hollies’ “The Air That I Breathe.” Similarly, Lana Del Rey’s “Get Free” was found to be a copy of “Creep.”
Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars also had to alter the “Uptown Funk” credits to acknowledge the similarity to The Gap Band’s “Oops Upside Your Head.” In Australia, Men at Work’s use of the flute solo from the folk song “Kookaburra Sits in the Old Gum Tree” in their hit song “Down Under” was ruled plagiarism.
In Sheeran’s case, the claim was centered around the chord progression used in the song. The prosecution argued that Sheeran’s chord progression was too similar to Gaye’s.
However, the same chord progression has been used in countless other pop songs over the past 70 years, including “I Can Hear Music” by The Beach Boys, “Georgy Girl” by The Seekers, “I Feel Fine” by The Beatles, “This Old Heart of Mine” by The Isley Brothers, “Suspicious Minds” by Elvis Presley, “Believe” by Cher, and “Knowing Me Knowing You” by ABBA, among many others.
This begs the question: can a chord progression be copyrighted if used extensively in other pop songs? Chord progressions, along with other musical elements, are part of the songwriting toolkit of rock and pop music. It’s not uncommon for songs to share similar chord progressions, melodies, or rhythms.
In the end, the case of Ed Sheeran highlights the challenges that arise when determining what constitutes musical inspiration, influence, or theft. It’s a complex and subjective matter that will continue to be debated in the music industry for years.