There are only 12 notes to go around but still… there’s inspiration and then there’s bare-faced (alleged) theft
Ed Sheeran is in the headlines again with the news that a judge has rejected his call for a legal case, relating to his 2014 hit ‘Thinking Out Loud’ and its musical similarities to Marvin Gaye’s 1973 classic ‘Let’s Get It On’, to be dropped.
District Judge Louis Stanton said a jury should decide, adding that he found “substantial similarities between several of the two works’ musical elements”. The suit was originally filed in August 2016 by the family of Gaye’s late co-writer, Ed Townsend Jr, who claim that “the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic: compositions of Thinking are substantially and/or strikingly similar to the drum composition of Let’s”
There is also a second claim, filed in June, from a company called Structured Asset Sales, which owns part of the copyright of the song, specifically, they have a deal with the son of Ed Townsend Jr - and they’re suing him for $100m, alleging that his song copies “the melody, rhythms, harmonies, drums, bass line, backing chorus, tempo, syncopation and looping” of Gaye’s song.
The previous suit was filed in August 2016 by the family of Townsend Jr, claiming “the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic: compositions of Thinking are substantially and/or strikingly similar to the drum composition of Let’s” - and it’s still unclear whether this has been settled.
Take a listen and see for yourselves:
However, this is far from the first time that Sheeran has been accused of plagiarism.
Back in April 2017, Ed Sheeran settled a $20m lawsuit which accused him of copying ‘note-for-note’ from the song ‘Amazing’ by Matt Cardle in order to make the chorus for his 2015 hit ‘Photograph’.
To be fair, it’s hard to argue that he’s not made the right decision, since any judge worth their musical salt would have agreed that the two are basically identical. Take a listen for yourself:
And if that wasn’t enough, he was forced to cut in the writers of the TLC song ‘No Scrubs’ – Kandi Burruss, Tameka “Tiny” Cottle, and Kevin “She’kspere” Briggs – on his hit ‘Shape Of You’, presumably to stave off legal action on account of the fact that he (probably) ripped off the R&B classic for the prechorus of his track.
Back in March this year, Lana Del Rey claimed that her legal battle with Radiohead over alleged similarities between her song ‘Get Free’, which features on her 2017 album Lust For Life, and their 1992 breakout hit ‘Creep’ was over, although no details have emerged on what the agreement was.
While the chords of the two songs are - to be fair - exactly the same, and there’s a fair bit of melodic crossover in the chorus, there’s an element of pot, kettle and black about this, seeing as Radiohead were themselves successfully sued by songwriters Albert Hammond and Mike Hazlewood over similarities between ‘Creep’ and their song ‘The Air That I Breathe’ - a 1973 hit for The Hollies. They ended up settling, and Hammond and Hazlewood now appear on the credits for ‘Creep’.
In addition, Sam Smith has a song ’Midnight Train’, on his latest album The Thrill of It All, which is outrageously similar, chordwise and sonically, to ‘Creep’ and yet no action has been taken on that song - yet. Watch out Sam, the lawyers might come knocking soon.
Meanwhile, songwriters Hall and Butler filed a lawsuit in 2017 for 20% of Taylor Swift’s huge hit ‘Shake It Off’, claiming that she stole the lines ‘players gonna play play play play play and the haters gonna hate hate hate hate hate’ from the song they wrote in 2001 for girl group 3LW, ‘Playas Gon’ Play’ - which has the not-dissimilar lyrics: ‘playas, they gonna play and haters, they gonna hate’.
Reps for the star said: ‘This is a ridiculous claim and nothing more than a money grab. The law is simple and clear. They do not have a case.’ - and it was duly dismissed in February of this year.
Here’s our round-up of some more of the most famous tunes in musical history that sound all too familiar.
Spirit vs Led Zeppelin
Spirit guitarist Randy Wolfe had been reluctant to sue Led Zeppelin over the apparent similarities between his band's 1968 track ‘Taurus’, and the Zep's monstrous 1971 hit ‘Stairway to Heaven’, during his lifetime, but in 2014 a trustee of his estate finally brought a lawsuit against Jimmy Page and Robert Plant for copyright infringement. There had been rumours for years that Zeppelin had lifted the famous guitar lick from the Spirit track, but a judge ruled that they were not guilty of doing so. Have a listen to both and see what you think.
Robin Thicke vs Marvin Gaye
The most high-profile case of recent times is, of course, the legal battle between ‘Blurred Lines’' creators Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke and the Marvin Gaye estate, who claimed that the worldwide smash hit single plagiarised Gaye's classic 1977 disco groove ‘Got To Give It Up’. While ‘Blurred Lines’' 'feel' and 'sound' was undoubtedly inspired by the track - Thicke freely admitted as much - the melody and chord progressions of the tracks are very different. It was, therefore, a shock to many musicians when a 2015 jury awarded the Gaye family $7.4m in damages for copyright infringement, with half of all future royalties from the track to head their way. Williams and Thicke appealed the decision in December that year, so the saga will continue a little longer yet. For our money? We hope they overturn the decision.
Sam Smith vs Tom Petty
A rare example of a case being settled amicably, it was announced in January 2015 that Sam Smith had reached a settlement with Tom Petty's publishing company to add Petty and Jeff Lynne as co-writers, together with them receiving a 12.5 per cent songwriting credit after similarities were spotted between Smith's breakthrough hit ‘Stay With Me’, and Petty's 1989 song ‘I Won't Back Down’. Petty was characteristically nice about it all (see later), saying, "All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam's people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement". Smith claimed that he'd never heard the song before writing ‘Stay With Me’ - on hearing them both, we're not so sure.
Mark Ronson vs The Gap Band
No sooner had Mark Ronson's all-conquering smash ‘Uptown Funk’ reached the top spot than people were starting to notice all the songs that the producer had, ahem, been 'influenced' by. To his credit, he freely admitted many of them, with the credits soon being altered to recognise key writers from The Gap Band's 1979 song ‘Ooops Up Side Your Head’ - you know, the one that they play at school discos where everybody has to sit on the floor in a weird funk train. The songwriting credits now list Ronnie Wilson, Charles Wilson and Robert Wilson, together with record producer Lonnie Simmons and Rudolph Taylor, as writers on the track, alongside Ronson, Bruno Mars and producers Jeff Bhasker and Philip Lawrence. In addition, there's Nicholas Williams (aka Trinidad James) and Devon Gallaspy, who both received credits for the use of a sample of James's ‘All Gold Everything’.
Ray Parker Jr vs Huey Lewis & The News
Huey Lewis was approached to write the main theme for the Ghostbusters movie in 1984 but turned down the offer as he was working on Back To The Future. So the logical solution was to hire someone else and get them to copy one of Lewis' songs: thus Ray Parker Jr wrote ‘Ghostbusters’ which was markedly similar to Lewis' ‘I Want a New Drug’. The two parties settled out of court in 1995, presumably so that no skeletons in the closet would emerge during a courtroom trial (sorry).
Elastica vs Wire
Britpop was based to a large extent on bands being influenced by those before them (and a certain Mancunian band appear later on this list), but few took imitation being the sincerest form of flattery to the levels that Elastica did. They were sued by several bands for a list of copyright infringements including The Stranglers, over ‘Waking Up’, which bore a striking resemblance to ‘No More Heroes’ and Wire, who cited ‘Line Up’ as being similar to their song ‘I Am The Fly’. But most obviously was the intro to ‘Connection’, which borrowed shamelessly from Wire's ‘Three Girl Rhumba’, as you can hear below.
Katy Perry vs Sara Bareilles
Bareilles' song came out first in April 2013, earning the singer-songwriter a minor hit, peaking at 31 on the Billboard top 100. Four months later and Katy Perry's big comeback song was unveiled - and people noticed an uncanny resemblance between the two or, in layman's terms: the backing for both songs were identical. No lawsuits here though, as Bareilles commented "Katy's a friend of mine and we've know each other a really long time, so she even texted me about it...all love everybody, all love." On Perry's behalf, co-writer Dr Luke tweeted that ‘Roar’ was written and recorded before Brave came out. While that may be true, that doesn't mean he might have heard it before release and thought "hmmm, that's good." We're just saying it's possible, that's all...
Oasis vs Stevie Wonder
Oasis had already had to settle a plagiarism case on debut album Definitely Maybe, with The New Seekers receiving $500,000 after ‘Shakermaker’ stole the chorus from ‘I'd Like to Teach the World To Sing’. Album number two, (What's The Story) Morning Glory was at test pressing stage when Stevie Wonder got wind of the track ‘Step Out’, which was "highly influenced" by ‘Uptight (Everything's Alright)’. Wonder requested 10% of the royalties, which was eventually accepted; the track later surfaced as a B-side, with Wonder, Cosby and Moy receiving co-writing credits.
Killing Joke vs Nirvana
Members of British group Killing Joke all claimed that the main guitar riff for Nirvana's seminal ‘Come As You Are’ was stolen from their song ‘Eighties’, but differing reports have emerged of what happened in response. Some say that the band never filed a formal lawsuit; others that they did, but it was either thrown out of court, or dropped following Cobain's suicide. Geordie Walker, Killing Joke's guitarist, stated in an interview that the theft was, "obvious to everyone. We had two separate musicologists' reports saying it was. Our publisher sent their publisher a letter saying it was and they went 'Boo, never heard of ya!', but the hysterical thing about Nirvana saying they'd never heard of us was that they'd already sent us a Christmas card!"
Coldplay vs Joe Satriani
Coldplay's hit 2008 song ‘Viva La Vida’ saw them under fire from an unlikely source: legendary guitar hero Joe Satriani, who alleged that the track had substantially borrowed from his song ‘If I Could Fly’. While the band denied it, and the case was dismissed - suggesting that it was purely coincidental - Coldplay have been known to 'take influence' from songs before; ‘In My Place’ referenced Ride's ‘Dreams Burn Down’ and ‘Fix You’ had substantial echoes of Elbow's ‘Grace Under Pressure’. However, nothing was proved here - but have a listen and see what you think.
Lady Gaga vs Madonna
Like Katy Perry, the pressure on Gaga's comeback single for her second album was immense, so few could have blamed her for playing it safe and going with a song that had been, ahem, 'road-tested' already. Knowing Gaga, it was probably all a deliberate ploy to create controversy, as ‘Born This Way’ was hugely influenced by the former Queen of Pop Madonna's hit ‘Express Yourself’. Madge did not make a claim; however, she called Gaga 'reductive' and performed a mashup of the two songs on her MDNA tour, with the song culminating with lines from a song called ‘She's Not Me’ - a song about Madonna being emulated by someone else. Miaow.
The Beach Boys vs Chuck Berry
Many would argue that there are few rock 'n rollers who didn't steal from Chuck Berry, but the Beach Boys were a little more obvious than most. The single was originally listed with Brian Wilson as the sole composer, but after people with ears heard the two songs, rights were quickly given to Chuck Berry and his publisher Arc Music.
Calvin Harris vs JLS & Chris Brown
Much like Chuck Berry, once Calvin Harris had changed the face of modern dance music with ‘I'm Not Alone’, there were very few producers who didn't try and rip it off in some way. However, few were as blatant as boyband JLS were on ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ and then Chris Brown on ‘Yeah 3x’. Harris had never previously complained - and indeed had acknowledged that dance music was frequently a culture of borrowing ideas - but finally lost patience with Brown, saying, "stealing is still stealing, doesn't matter who you are...[Just] because Chris Brown is an international celebrity doesn't make it OK to rip off a guy from UK not many people have heard of." Since then, Harris has become an international celebrity himself and has produced so many other hits, he probably doesn't care.
Jet vs Iggy Pop
No-one would ever accuse Jet of being original, but ‘Are You Gonna Be My Girl’ lifted the drum and bass pattern lock, stock and barrel from Iggy Pop's hit ‘Lust For Life’. Still, if you're gonna steal something, you may as well steal something brilliant - and the song was a huge hit for the Aussie rockers.
Willie Dixon vs Led Zeppelin
Led Zeppelin were frequently accused of borrowing from the bluesmen who influenced them, with parts of ‘Bring It On Home’ - copied from the Willie Dixon song of the same name (tip: you might want to change the name if you want to get away with it) - and ‘The Lemon Song’ both being the subjects of successful lawsuits from Arc Music. However, perhaps most surprisingly, a third song from that album - and one of their most famous - was also apparently ripped off, with the lyrics and melody of ‘Whole Lotta Love’ being taken from the Willie Dixon (him again) song ‘You Need Love’. Later pressings ended up crediting him as a co-writer. Jimmy Page still wrote that riff though (with the help of the devil, allegedly).
The Rubinoos vs Avril Lavigne
Avril Lavigne's 2007 hit ‘Girlfriend’ was an enormous hit (340m YouTube hits and counting), but she probably already knew it would be, as the main hook was based on a song which had already been road-tested. Tommy Dunbar and James Gangwer of the seventies power pop band The Rubinoos (who also wrote ‘I Think We're Alone Now’) alleged that the song borrowed from ‘I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend’ (see what Avril did there) and the case was settled out of court in 2008.
Tom Petty vs The Strokes
Poor Tom Petty has previous for having his songs ripped off: the intro to the amazing ‘Last Nite’ is undeniably similar to ‘American Girl’ by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers - but then the New York band never denied it. In a 2006 interview with Rolling Stone, Petty commented, "The Strokes took ‘American Girl’... there was an interview that took place with them where they actually admitted it. That made me laugh out loud. I was like, 'OK, good for you.' It doesn't bother me". In fact, such was the lack of animosity that The Strokes were invited to open for Tom Petty on several of his tour dates in 2006: a happy ending for once.
(Main image: Getty)