A lot of people in the music business here in Atlanta and worldwide were recently focused on what was happening in a New York City courthouse where Ed Sheeran was a defendant in a copyright infringement lawsuit brought by the estate of Ed Townshend, who co-wrote Marvin Gaye’s hit, Let’s Get It On with Gaye.
Sheeran called the suit “baseless,” and said, “I am not and will never allow myself to be a piggy bank for anyone to shake.” After Sheeran prevailed in the case, he said that the jury’s decision “will help to protect the creative process of songwriters here in the United States and around the world.” That’s not likely to happen any time soon.
What aspects of a song are protected by copyright?
A number of elements of a piece of music and its performance can be copyrighted. For example, an artist can’t “sample” a portion of another performer’s recording of a song or include the music and lyrics of that song in their own without permission.
Those are obvious examples of copyright infringement. The cases that aren’t so cut-and-dried are more like the Sheeran case where one songwriter sues another because a portion of a song is similar to that of another.
The allegation in his case was that a chord sequence was the same as one in the Gaye song. Sheeran’s legal team argued that chord sequences couldn’t be covered under copyright laws because numerous pieces have shared chord sequences.
But just how similar can a song be to another one before it’s considered a violation of the “protectable elements” of that song? For example, in another case involving a Marvin Gaye song (Got To Give It Up), Gaye’s family prevailed in a suit over Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ hit Blurred Lines and again on appeal, which was found to have the same “feel” of the Gaye song rather than the lyrics or melody. This was seen, for better or worse, as a first in song copyright infringement cases.
Whichever side of a legal action you are on, it’s crucial to have experienced legal guidance to help you protect your rights and your work.