The $100 Million Copy: Is Ed Sheeran guilty of plagiarism?

$100 million is a lot of money. But is it really the fair cost of plagiarism?

It is the amount Ed Sheeran is being sued for after Structured Asset Sales (they’ll be known as SAS for the remainder of this article because who has the time?), part owners of Marvin Gaye’s classic hit Let’s Get It On, alleged that Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud was too similar to Gaye’s song as to be mere coincidence.

Firstly, in discussing Sheeran himself, I must note that I have nothing against his music. Its fine. Inoffensive, ineffectual. Fine.

The perfect background music in fact. My brother, who knows significantly more about music than I do, claims that, while he actively dislikes Sheeran’s releases, he has struck the perfect balance in terms of making music that appeals to all generations.

Thinking Out Loud is one such song, a lyrical ballad in millennial form, a slow jam en vogue. It is, however, incredibly similar to Gaye’s song virtually throughout.

The most notably similar aspect is beat and tempo, although SAS claim that Sheeran’s track copies well, everything: “melody, rhythms, harmonies, drums, bass line, backing chorus, tempo, syncopation and looping.”

Ouch.

Its a fairly damning condemnation of Sheeran’s songwriting. Supposedly, nothing about his song is original in comparison to Gaye’s and if, truly, all of those aspects have been snatched directly from the original work, Sheeran should surely have to pay a price.

$100 million, though? Absolutely not.

Many artists now claim that it is almost impossible to write an entirely original track. There is too much musical and cultural history that a modern writer must tread on someone’s toes to find the perfect chord sequence, the ideal melody.

Indeed, the reliance on technology, more specifically, synthetic beats, within 21st Century pop, hip-hop, grime even rock, has led to what Gavin Haynes called, in a 2016 Guardian article, the “Millennial Whoop,” i.e. the hook that artists rely on to draw people in. I, as much as it pains me to admit it (not really), am one of those cynical, secretly middle-aged grouches who think it all sounds the same.

Of course, there is nuance. Artistic design ensures some of it is better than others. But deep down, in the murky, unseen hollow within, they rely upon the same fundamental elements required to make a song a hit.

Ultimately, this brings us back to Gaye’s song. Soul is one of Blues’ most successful and sultry descendants and Let’s Get It On is no exception to its family’s trait. Smooth, silky, funky and most crucially, a massive worldwide bestseller, why shouldn’t Sheeran be influenced by it?

Influence is a key word here. Every band or artist is influenced by someone. It is impossible not to be. If you are not influenced by any musician or their work, there can be no desire to write one’s own music as you have nothing to work with or base it on.

Sheeran did not intend to write a modern day Let’s Get It On. His song is altogether different in tone. Gaye’s tune is one of the sexiest ever written. Sheeran’s, however, is nothing of the sort, intended instead to be a crisp, romantic ode to a loved one.

It may have been seen differently in the 1970s but that simply hits upon another factor in defence of Sheeran. If Gaye were to release Let’s Get It On now, it would spark little to no controversy. In the seventies, however, the overt, sexually suggestive lyrics garnered shock among its premiere audience.

Ed Sheeran, meanwhile, is one of the least controversial men in the world. Thinking Out Loud would barely be less controversial but for these claims of plagiarism.

That is not to say that this will not happen again, nor even that it hasn’t happened before. Sheeran has already been sued for this song by the family of one of Let’s get It On’s songwriters (that case was dropped in 2017) and has had to settle a $20 million lawsuit with writers Thomas Leonard and Martin Harrington after it was found that another of his hit singles, Photograph, was unerringly similar to atheir ditty, entitled Amazing, sung by X Factor winner Matt Cardle.

Those two songs are proverbial “peas in a pod,” so twinned musically that even I’d assume it couldn’t be incidental. Perhaps, the difference between Leonard and Harrington’s issue and SAS’, is that their song was a commercial flop while Sheeran’s, inevitably, stormed the charts.

SAS have no support in that respect. Let’s Get It On is one of the most instantly recognisable songs of all time so must they moan and groan that another successful song is crafted from the same mould?

I’m not suggesting Sheeran could not have rewritten it more subtly given his own outstanding musical pedigree. But I hardly think its stolen. If it were appropriated word for word from an unknown scribe’s hands and published as if purely his own, then $100 million would not be far fetched.

Yet I doubt Sheeran would refute the likeness. However, his success since 2014 is such that he could release a cover of Agadoo and people would go barmy (see Taylor Swift’s stomach-lurchingly, eyeball-scratchingly terrible rendition of Earth Wind and Fire’s September for reference).

Thinking Out Loud and Let’s Get It On are step-siblings that don’t quite see eye-to-eye. The success of the former is not down to its comparability to the latter. People don’t listen to it because they crave a pseudo shot of Gaye. They listen to it because its Ed Sheeran. Make of that what you will.