- Share this article on Facebook
- Share this article on Twitter
- Share this article on Flipboard
- Share this article on Email
- Show additional share options
- Share this article on Linkedin
- Share this article on Pinit
- Share this article on Reddit
- Share this article on Tumblr
- Share this article on Whatsapp
- Share this article on Print
- Share this article on Comment
When a jury determined “Blurred Lines” borrowed from Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” and Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke were ordered to pay millions of dollars in damages, it not only shook up the music industry but also set off a flurry of other lawsuits that made songwriters more willing to give credit, whether it was due or not.
After the 2015 decision, John Legend argued that the verdict would set a bad precedent for artists creating music inspired by others. It certainly set a precedent for legal action as other veteran songwriters decided to go after hitmakers they felt were a little too inspired by their work. Some went to trial, others settled outside the courtroom and a number of artists began extending writing credit to older songs — some because the melodies were similar but others to avoid a repeat of the “Blurred Lines” backlash.
But Ed Sheeran’s win last week — a jury said his hit “Thinking Out Loud” didn’t steal key components of Gaye’s classic “Let’s Get It On” — could change the narrative.
“In this particular situation, I think the verdict was right. At some point there are only so many chords or notes you can play. I’m happy with the verdict because it [lets] songwriters [know] that if something small sounds similar, you won’t have to pay for copying something that you really didn’t copy,” Johnta Austin, the Grammy-winning songwriter behind hits like Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together” and Mary J. Blige’s “Be Without You,” tells The Hollywood Reporter.
Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars named the writers of the Gap Band’s “Ooops Upside Your Head” as co-writers of the anthemic “Uptown Funk,” Billboard’s No. 1 song of the last decade. The Chainsmokers’ smash “Closer” — No. 3 on that Billboard list — gave writing credit to Isaac Slade and Joe King of The Fray because of commonalities to the rock band’s hit “Over My Head (Cable Car).” And Sam Smith’s Grammy-winning debut hit, “Stay With Me,” added Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne as co-writers because of comparisons to the former’s “I Won’t Back Down.”
Sheeran’s eight-year battle was over, but the English superstar let the world know no one left the trial as real winners. “We need to be able to write our original music and engage in independent creation without worrying at every step of the way that such creativity will be wrongly called into question,” he said.
“These chords are common building blocks which were used to create music long before ‘Let’s Get It On’ was written and will be used to make music long after we are all gone,” he said. “They are a songwriter’s ‘alphabet’ — our tool kit and should be there for us all to use. No one owns them or the way they are played, in the same way, nobody owns the color blue.”
Sean Garrett, the Grammy-nominated songwriter-producer behind hits for Beyoncé, Usher and Chris Brown, says Sheeran’s win is great for the industry, but the music community is still rattled.
“I think the lines are blurred, for sure,” Garrett says.
“I think the score is 1-1 now,” he explains about Thicke’s loss and Sheeran’s win. “I don’t think that we are more clear. I don’t think [this new win] brought clarity. I still feel that it’s case-by-case, unfortunately. That’s the part that’s scary.”
Garrett says he was super-emotional when “Blurred Lines” lost millions of dollars in court. He felt creators were being restricted and limited and had to make music from a fearful place.
“That was a sad moment for me. I felt like, creatively, you’re really just trying to make great music,” he says. “I tend to really respect Ed Sheeran and Pharrell as creatives and they’re super-talented. They don’t really have to borrow from anyone. They’re just that talented.”
He adds, “I felt like it was a loss. It wasn’t a good day for music. You want to make music from your heart. You want to make music to make people feel good. You don’t want to make music and feel scared or feel like you’re worried about a lawsuit. It just takes the beauty out of music.”
Austin remembers being in Sheeran’s shoes when a singer claimed elements of her song were lifted to create Carey’s upbeat 2005 jam “It’s Like That,” which he co-wrote with the pop diva, Jermaine Dupri and Manuel Seal. The group had to “turn over our laptops and everything to prove that we never visited this person’s page or website,” Austin recalls.
“It never went to trial. It didn’t get past a certain stage. But they accused us. And we didn’t borrow from it, so we were in the clear,” he explains.
“We’ve always credited inspiration that we’ve taken verbatim. When you look at ‘We Belong Together’ and all of the writers that we credited when we used one line,” he added of Carey’s No. 1 song, which interpolates lyrics from Bobby Womack’s “If You Think You’re Lonely Now” and “Two Occasions” by the Deele.
“When you’re sued and you know that you didn’t do it and you’re accused of something that you know didn’t do, it’s like, ‘Come on guys.’”
But this wasn’t Sheeran’s first court case about allegedly stealing music. The singer, along with Tim McGraw and Faith Hill, settled a copyright lawsuit claiming that their song “The Rest of Our Life” was a rip-off of a song by two Australian songwriters called “When I Found You.” Sheeran also won a copyright battle over his megahit “Shape of You” when a judge ruled he didn’t plagiarize another song that claimed Sheeran’s hook was similar to a song he created.
Kandi Burruss — the Xscape band member and star of The Real Housewives of Atlanta who has written songs for Destiny’s Child, ‘N Sync and Pink — has a writing credit on “Shape of You” because it borrows from TLC’s pop culture smash “No Scrubs,” which Burruss won a Grammy for co-writing. But she says they had to work out the logistics with Sheeran’s team after the song was released.
“With ‘Shape of You,’ they reached out to us during the process of him recording the album. We discussed the split or whatever, and then we just didn’t hear anything else about it. But then the song came out and we were like, ‘Oh,’” Burruss recalls. “After we didn’t settle on anything, we thought, ‘OK, well maybe he’s not going to use the song.’”
The two parties got in touch after the song came out. “And we were like, ‘Oh, OK. Thank you,’” a smiling Burruss says after earning credit on the track, which ranks third on Billboard’s decade-end chart.
The recent lawsuit against Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” was filed by the heirs of Ed Townsend, who co-wrote “Let’s Get It On” with Gaye. The two sides argued over the songs sharing a similar syncopated chord pattern, which Townsend’s family called the “heart” of “Let’s Get It On.” Sheeran’s lawyers said the similarities were commonplace musical building blocks that are also part of other songs currently available, and the jury found that Sheeran and co-writer Amy Wadge created “Thinking Out Loud” independently.
“If you listen to blues music, and you listen to that popular blues riff [Austin begins singing] — it’s like, ‘Yeah, at some point somebody wrote it first.’ But now at this stage everyone uses it,” Austin says. “There are only so many chords [available].”
Garrett said he understands both sides. If he weren’t around, he’d want his family to defend the music he created like Townsend’s heirs have done. But he also understands Sheeran’s position.
“To have to feel like you’re dealing with legal ramifications for something that you’re doing with so much passion, it’s just a very scary thing. It’s like, ‘I might go to jail for what I love to do?’ It sucks,” Garrett said.
“I am so touched by the situation because it’s such an in-the-middle thing. It’s gut-wrenching. This is worse than a horror movie.”
Sign up for THR news straight to your inbox every day