from the that's-not-how-copyright-is-supposed-to-work dept
There’s a fairly long history of lawsuits over songs sounding too “similar” — from the lawsuit over George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” sounding too much like “He’s So Fine” to the Verve getting sued by The Rolling Stones for the hit “Bittersweet Symphony” sounding similar to the Stones’ “The Last Time.” But after last year’s verdict in favor of Marvin Gaye’s estate in the “Blurred Lines” case, the floodgates seem to have opened, with a bunch of similar lawsuits over songs that sound vaguely similar, but not much more. A couple of months ago, in a bit of a surprise, Led Zeppelin actually won its case over whether or not it had infringed on someone’s copyright in “Stairway to Heaven,” so there’s at least some hope that not every “similar sounding” song will face a copyright lawsuit — but even then the arbitrariness of these decisions seems problematic.
It’s especially problematic when the songs are clearly different, even if one was inspired by the other, or was written as sort of an homage to the original. It used to be that this kind of building on the works of others was a sign of flattery and something people should be happy about. But with millions of dollars being thrown around thanks to statutory damages, big lawsuits seem to be the answer instead. Earlier this week, hit pop singer Ed Sheeran was hit with a new lawsuit also claiming that he infringed on an old famous Marvin Gaye tune, “Let’s Get It On.” This time, it’s not the Gaye Estate that’s suing (as in the “Blurred Lines” case), but rather the estate of a songwriter on that song, Ed Townsend. The accusation is that Sheeran’s hit “Thinking Out Loud” infringes on “Let’s Get It On.” Here are both tracks:
The bass lines are definitely similar, but that’s really about it. They’re pretty different songs in almost every other aspect. And that bass line is not exactly the most complex or inventive bass line. Of course, people definitely noticed similarities in the bass lines early on. Many reviews mentioned it, and (of course) someone created a YouTube mashup (which I think is actually better than the Sheeran original, but that’s a personal preference…).
But of course you can mashup lots of songs that way and it hardly means copyright infringement.
Since no one else reporting on this has actually shared the filings, I thought I’d fix that. You can read it here or embedded below. There’s not much detail in there other than the claim that “Thinking Out Loud” has copied “the heart” of “Let’s Get It On.” It claims that “the melodic, harmonic and rhythmic compositions” are “substantially and/or strikingly similar” between the two songs. They are, of course, demanding statutory damages, because why not?
Meanwhile, this is the second lawsuit of this nature against Sheeran in just the last few months. In early June, he was sued over another one of his hit songs, “Photograph,” with the lawsuit claiming it was a note-for-note copy of the song “Amazing” by Matt Cardle (written by the plaintiffs in that lawsuit, Martin Harington and Thomas Leonard). In that case, again there are similarities between the two, but they’re basically both just guitar ballads, not all that unlike tons of singer/songwriter guitar ballads with pretty basic progressions.
But, really, this whole focus on these kinds of lawsuits seems really damaging to the way music is created. Being inspired by other musicians or wanting to write something that “feels like” another artist is pretty standard. And it should never be copyright infringement. These are all different songs and they should stand and fall on their own power, not because of some stupid copyright claim. But, of course, thanks to the recording industry ranting on and on about “ownership” of “intellectual property,” combined with the massive rewards for winning a copyright lawsuit (thanks to statutory damages), this is what we end up with — a world where being creative in a manner that is inspired by someone else, or in homage to them, is called “theft” by some. That seems like it’s going to create a massive chilling effect on musicians and songwriters and the way they create music.