6 April 2022CopyrightMuireann Bolger

Ed Sheeran wins ‘Shape of You’ copyright case

Singer Ed Sheeran has prevailed in a major copyright dispute over his 2017 chart topper “Shape of You” at the High Court of England and Wales.

In a decision handed down today, Wednesday, April 6, Justice Antony Zacaroli ruled that Sheeran had "neither deliberately nor subconsciously copied" a song by grime artist Sami Chokri.

Chokri had claimed that  the "Oh I" hook in Sheeran's track was "strikingly similar" to a refrain in his own 2015 record, “Oh why?”

Following the ruling, Sheeran posted a video on YouTube, describing such “baseless” claims  as “way too common”, and described such cases as really damaging to the songwriting industry, as “there’s only so many notes and very few chords used in pop music”.

According to music streaming platform Spotify, “Shape of You” is one of the most streamed songs in its history. During the legal proceedings, Sheeran said he did not remember hearing “Oh Why” before the legal case. Sheeran composed the track alongside Snow Patrol's John McDaid and producer Steven McCutcheon, who both also denied ever hearing “Oh Why”.

In a joint statement issued by the trio, they criticised the effect of such litigation and the“cost on creativity”, stating: “Everyone should be able to freely express themselves in music, in art and do so fearlessly. At the same time, we believe that there should be due process for legitimate and warranted copyright protection. However, that is not the same as having a culture where unwarranted claims are easily brought . This is not constructive or conducive to a culture of creativity.”

“We are grateful that Justice Zacaroli has delivered a clear and considered judgment which supports the position we have argued from the outset. ‘Shape of You’ is original. We did not copy the Defendants’ song.”

Commenting on the ruling, Simon Goodbody, partner at Bray and Krais, who represented Ed Sheeran, said: “The judgment is an emphatic vindication of the creative genius of Ed, Johnny and Steve—as they have always maintained, they created Shape Of You together, without copying from anyone else.”

Mark Kramer, copyright specialist at Potter Clarkson, had previously described such cases as an occupational hazard for a star of Ed Sheeran’s magnitude.

A risky strategy

“Sheeran has gone on the offensive in this case and come out fighting for his integrity and reputation,” he said, adding that the singer had prevailed in his bold determination to pursue the case through to the High Courts rather than settling the dispute earlier.

Taking this all the way to the High Court may appear to be a somewhat risky strategy, particularly if the court had found that Sheeran had access to Sami Switch’s song and that the hook lines are strikingly similar, he added.

Also commenting, Isaac Murdy, IP specialist at Shakespeare Martineau described such chart toppers as tempting targets for copyright infringement cases.

“If you have a legitimate case for copyright infringement, for the right song, pursuing a claim can be a very shrewd investment of time and legal fees. However, as we’ve seen here, that investment is not without risk,” he explained.

“It’s rare for a copyright infringement case to get this far in court. Often, they are settled outside of court, as it’s usually a less expensive result for both parties. Clearly, Chokri believed he had a strong case, unfortunately it wasn’t strong enough and he now faces a considerable legal bill.”

Effect on smaller artists

This judgment, he added, further indicates that the UK IP courts aren’t going to support US-style speculative litigation.

“It will take more than a short section of ‘basic minor pentatonic pattern’ which is ‘entirely commonplace’, to establish a successful claim of copyright infringement. All music is derivative to a certain extent, and in the words of Elvis Costello ‘It’s how rock & roll works'. This ruling shows that clear similarities throughout two songs are needed to form a substantial case,” said Murdy.

However, he did caution that this ruling may embolden artists to be more brazen in ‘taking inspiration’ from each other, without fearing the consequences of copyright infringement.

“While this makes the process of creating (and publishing) music easier, in some cases it might deprive smaller artists of income that should have gone to them,” warned Murdy.

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More on this story

8 April 2022   The musician’s notable win in the ‘Shape of You’ case underscores that legal disputes over pop songs can’t derive from coincidental similarities, say Mark Kramer, Mark Nichols, Georgia Carr of Potter Clarkson.
28 April 2023   As the singer faces yet another copyright lawsuit—in this case over a Marvin Gaye track—he argues that there are 'only so many notes' in music and that 'coincidence' is inevitable. Sarah Speight asks, does he have a point?
3 October 2022   The dispute centres on a 1973 chart topping song | Taylor Swift and Katy Perry subjected to similar litigation.