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Down the Slippery Slope: The Ed Sheeran Lawsuit

July 16, 2018

Posted in: Music

A few weeks ago, pop superstar Ed Sheeran found himself facing down a massive $100 million lawsuit brought by an investment banker named David Pullman. The lawsuit alleges that Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” borrowed too heavily from Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” a track that is partly owned by Pullman’s investment company Structured Asset Sales.

The case is being compared to the famous “Blurred Lines” settlement, which resulted in defeat for songwriters Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke. The songwriting team was accused of copying another Marvin Gaye track – in that case, “Gotta Give It Up.” It comes as no surprise then, that after seeing the Gaye estate’s victory over “Blurred Lines,” Pullman jumped at the next major opportunity to cash in on his stake in “Let’s Get It On.”

Upon further investigation, the two cases may not be so similar after all. In the “Blurred Lines” case, music fans and creators acknowledged the similarities but suggested that calling it copyright infringement could create a slippery slope into constant legal nightmares for recording artists everywhere. With the Sheeran case, however, listeners are not hearing what Pullman is hearing – evidence those gloomy predictions are starting to come true.

This case comes down to a number of allegations, with Pullman’s group insisting that Sheeran copied elements “including but not limited to the melody, rhythms, harmonies, drums, bass line, backing chorus, tempo, syncopation and looping.” Since this basically encompasses every facet of the music, Pullman argued that there was  a “substantial similarity” to “Thinking Out Loud” – a concept we have explored in this blog before.

Many musicians and writers online quickly lashed out at these claims. Popular music YouTubers Adam Neely and Rick Beato have already published in-depth discussions of each of the lawsuit’s claims, and why many of the allegations are both silly and dangerous. Neely explains that the chord progressions in dispute can be traced back to Bach, while Beato wisely points out, with accompanying transcription, that the main vocal melody of “Thinking Out Loud” has almost nothing in common with “Let’s Get it On.”

Perhaps Pullman’s greatest argument is the tempo of both songs, which is essentially identical. The drums, too, sound objectively similar. But can an artist copyright a tempo, or the sound of a snare drum – especially when these elements have been used countless times before Gaye came along?

The lawsuit brings up big, interesting questions about the nature of art – how do we qualify and quantify artistic influence? Pullman, on the other hand, seems to be primarily concerned with how to monetize it. One thing is clear – when it comes to music, all artists live in glass houses, so perhaps it’s best to be careful with those big, expensive stones.

 

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