What Does Ed Sheeran’s Copyright Win Mean For Music Industry? Plus Tory Lanez, Kanye West & More
This is The Legal Beat, a weekly newsletter about music law from Billboard Pro, offering you a one-stop cheat sheet of big new cases, important rulings and all the fun stuff in between.
This week: Ed Sheeran wins his trial over whether “Thinking Out Loud” infringed Marvin Gaye’s iconic “Let’s Get It On”; Tory Lanez is denied a new trial over the shooting of Megan Thee Stallion; Adidas faces a class action over its Kanye West partnership; and much more.
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THE BIG STORY: Ed Sheeran & The Copyright Road Ahead
That sound you hear? It’s not Ed Sheeran strumming his guitar from the witness stand, or the tinny audio from a supposedly “smoking gun” YouTube video. It’s the music business letting out a giant sigh of relief.
After one of the biggest music trials in years, Sheeran won a jury verdict last week that his “Thinking Out Loud” didn’t infringe the copyright of Marvin Gaye’s famed “Let’s Get It On,” clearing the singer of wrongdoing and avoiding the potential for millions in damages.
A verdict against the singer would have reverberated throughout the industry, much like the infamous 2015 verdict against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams over their megahit “Blurred Lines.” Like in that earlier case, many music pros and copyright lawyers believed that Sheeran and Gaye’s songs shared only common musical “building blocks” that everyone is entitled to use. They worried that a verdict against Sheeran could have blurred the line between legal similarities and illegal copying.
For years, the verdict on “Blurred Lines” led the industry to be hyper-cautious about songs that sounded remotely similar. Musicology reports and insurance policies became far more common, and songwriting credits were liberally doled out at the first sign of trouble — by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars for their smash hit “Uptown Funk,” by Sam Smith for his Grammy-winning “Stay With Me” and by Olivia Rodrigo for her chart-topping “Good 4 U,” among many others. When cases were filed in court, many defendants chose to quickly settle, rather than face an unpredictable jury.
The legal reality, though, is that courts have slowly been back-tracking from “Blurred Lines” for a while now — first with an appellate court decision in 2020 on Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven,” then with a similar ruling last year on Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse.” Both of those rulings provided clear case law that simple elements of music creation, standing alone, cannot be monopolized by any one songwriter. Over just the first few months of 2023, song-theft cases against Donald Glover (over his Childish Gambino chart-topper “This Is America”) and Nickelback (over the band’s 2005 hit “Rockstar”) have both been dismissed at the earliest stage of litigation.
Far from throwing the industry back into confusion, Sheeran’s victory last week seems to be the latest incremental step in a march toward a post-“Blurred Lines” world. Jury verdicts don’t change case law, but they can serve as a powerful disincentive to the next round of potential copyright accusers, who might be less willing to head to court if they see that artists are willing to successfully fight back rather than quickly settle when faced with an allegation.
For Sheeran, that seems to be precisely the effect he’s aiming for.
“By stopping this practice, we can also properly support genuine music copyright claims so that legitimate claims are rightly heard and resolved,” Sheeran said on the courthouse steps, minutes after the verdict was read aloud in court. “We need songwriters and the wider musical community to come together to bring back common sense. These claims need to be stopped so that the creative process can carry on, and we can all just go back to making music.”
Other top stories…
NO NEW TRIAL FOR TORY – A Los Angeles judge refused to grant Tory Lanez a new trial after he was convicted last year of shooting Megan Thee Stallion in the foot, setting the stage for the rapper to be sentenced to as much as two decades in prison. His lawyers called the trial a “miscarriage of justice,” but such requests are very rarely granted.
CLASS-ACTION KANYE – Adidas was hit with a class action lawsuit claiming the sportswear giant knew about Kanye West‘s problematic “personal behavior” years prior to ending its partnership with the disgraced rapper but failed to warn investors about it. West himself was not named in the case.
SPINRILLA SHUTTERED – Hip-hop mixtape site Spinrilla and founder Jeffery Copeland agreed to shut down the site and pay $50 million to Universal Music, Warner Music, Sony Music and others to end a years-long copyright infringement lawsuit over the unauthorized use of thousands of songs by Bob Marley, Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar and more.
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