Ed Sheeran has won a lengthy High Court battle over whether his hit Shape of You copied another artist’s song. Two songwriters, Sami Chokri and Ross O’Donoghue, had alleged that Ed’s 2017 hit infringed on ‘particular lines and phrases’ from their 2015 track, Oh Why.
Sheeran and his Shape of You co-writers, Snow Patrol’s John McDaid and producer Steven McCutcheon, were accused of ripping off Oh Why, however, in a ruling on Wednesday, Mr Justice Zacaroli concluded that Sheeran ‘neither deliberately nor subconsciously’ copied a phrase from the track when writing Shape of You.
Shape Of You went on to become a worldwide hit, becoming the best-selling song of 2017 in the UK and the most streamed track in Spotify’s history. In a statement released shortly after the verdict from Sheeran, McDaid and Mac, the three songwriters said the case was ‘more than just a financial cost’.
Chokri, a grime artist who performs under the name Sami Switch, and his co-writer O’Donoghue, had claimed an ‘Oh I’ hook in Shape Of You was ‘strikingly similar to an ‘Oh Why’ refrain in their track. During the trial Sheeran had denied he ‘borrows’ ideas from unknown songwriters without acknowledgement and insisted he ‘always tried to be completely fair’ in crediting people who contribute to his albums.
The Shape Of You co-authors launched legal proceedings in May 2018, asking the High Court to declare they had not infringed Chokri and Mr O’Donoghue’s copyright. In July 2018, Chokri and Mr O’Donoghue issued their own claim for ‘copyright infringement, damages and an account of profits in relation to the alleged infringement’.
During an 11-day explosive trial in London last month, Sheeran denied he ‘borrows’ ideas from unknown songwriters without acknowledgement and insisted he ‘always tried to be completely fair’ in crediting people who contribute to his albums. In the trial Sheeran told the court he was trying to ‘clear my name’ and denied using litigation to ‘intimidate’ Chokri and O’Donoghue into abandoning the copyright dispute.
All three Shape Of You co-authors denied allegations of copying and said they do not remember hearing Oh Why before the legal fight. Ian Mill QC, representing the three men, said the legal battle had been ‘deeply traumatising’, arguing the case should never have reached trial.
He claimed the case against them is ‘impossible to hold’, alleging evidence supports the argument that Shape of You was an ‘independent creation’. But the Oh Why co-writers’ lawyer, Andrew Sutcliffe QC, labelled Sheeran a ‘magpie’, claiming he ‘habitually copies’ other artists and that it is ‘extremely likely’ he had previously heard Oh Why.
He alleged that Sheeran’s lawyers brought the legal proceedings because PRS for music – the industry body that collects and distributes royalties – had ‘frozen’ payments for UK broadcast and performance income from Shape Of You. Sheeran was targeted with a ‘concerted plan’ by Chokri’s former management to secure his interest in the Oh Why singer, the court was told, with Oh Why being sent to those around the star.
It was also claimed Sheeran must have been aware of Chokri because they appeared on YouTube channel SBTV at about the same time, they shared friends, Chokri had sent messages to him on Twitter, and Sheeran had allegedly shouted his name at a performance.
Chokri told the trial he felt ‘robbed’ by the music star and was left ‘shocked’ when he first heard Shape Of You on the radio, while musicology experts gave contrasting views over whether Shape Of You has ‘significant similarities’ or is ‘distinctively different’ from Oh Why.
In a joint statement, Sheeran, McDaid and Mac said the case was ‘more than just a financial cost’, adding: There is a cost on creativity. When we are tangled up in law suits, we are not making music or playing shows.
‘There is a cost on our mental health. The stress this causes on all sides is immense. It affects so many aspects of our everyday lives and the lives of our families and friends. We are not corporations. We are not entities. We are human beings. We are songwriters. We do not want to diminish the hurt and pain anyone has suffered through this, and at the same time, we feel it is important to acknowledge that we too have had our own hurts and life struggles throughout the course of this process.’
The songwriters shared their hope that by going through the trial it ‘shows that there is a need for a safe space for all songwriters to be creative, and free to express their hearts’.
The statement went on: ‘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 Mr. 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.
‘We respect the music of those who’ve come before us and have inspired us along the way, whoever they are. We have always sought to clear or to acknowledge our influences and collaborators. It doesn’t matter how successful something appears to be, we still respect it.
‘It is so painful to hear someone publicly, and aggressively, challenge your integrity. ‘It is so painful to have to defend yourself against accusations that you have done something that you haven’t done and would never do.’
Sharing their gratitude for the message of ‘love, hope and support’ received throughout the course of the case ‘from songwriters everywhere’, they also publishers who ‘stood shoulder to shoulder with us at every step of the way’, adding: ‘We are privileged to do what we do, and we know that. We want to live in a world where we are free to do what we do, openly and honorably.’
They concluded that ‘while this has been one of the most difficult things we have ever been through in our professional lives’, they’ll ‘continue to stand up against baseless claims, and protect our rights and the integrity of our musical creativity, so we that can continue to make music, always’.
‘Our message to songwriters everywhere is: Please support each other,’ they wrote. ‘Be kind to one another. Let’s continue to cultivate a spirit of community and creativity.’