Ed Sheeran has won a high court battle over whether he plagiarised another artist’s track for his hit single Shape of You, the most streamed song in Spotify’s history.
In a ruling on Wednesday, Mr Justice Zacaroli concluded that Sheeran “neither deliberately nor subconsciously” copied a phrase from Oh Why when writing Shape of You.
Sheeran and his Shape Of You co-writers, Snow Patrol’s John McDaid and producer Steven McCutcheon, denied copying the 2015 song by Sami Chokri.
Chokri, a grime artist who performs under the name Sami Switch, and his co-writer Ross O’Donoghue, claimed an “Oh I” hook in Shape Of You was “strikingly similar” to an “Oh Why” refrain in their track.
Legal proceedings began in May 2018, with Sheeran and his co-writers asking the high court to declare they had not infringed Chokri and O’Donoghue’s copyright. Sheeran also said his reputation had been sullied by the allegations.
Two months later, Chokri and O’Donoghue issued their own claim for “copyright infringement, damages and an account of profits in relation to the alleged infringement”. Both parties anticipated costs in the region of £3m between them.
Sheeran had denied he “borrows” ideas from unknown songwriters without acknowledgement and insisted he “always tried to be completely fair” in crediting people who contributed to his albums.
The singer, who spent two days in the witness box, 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.
During the proceedings, the superstar frequently burst into song and hummed musical scales and melodies from Blackstreet’s No Diggity and Nina Simone’s classic Feeling Good to demonstrate how common the melody Shape of You uses is.
He said it uses “a basic minor pentatonic pattern” which is “entirely commonplace”.
The singer has already given the writers behind TLC’s 90s hit No Scrubs a credit on Shape of You after comparisons were made between the two songs.
All three Shape Of You co-authors denied allegations of copying Oh Why and said they did not remember hearing the track 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 was “impossible to hold”, alleging evidence supported the argument that Shape of You was an “independent creation”.
But the Oh Why co-writers’ lawyer, Andrew Sutcliffe QC, labelled Sheeran a “magpie” and “an obsessive music squirrel” who “habitually copies” other artists, adding that it was “extremely likely” he had previously heard Oh Why.
Sutcliffe alleged that Sheeran’s lawyers brought the legal proceedings because PRS for music – the industry body that collects and distributes royalties – had “frozen” an estimated £20m in royalties from the performances or broadcasts of Shape of You.
He said the case was not about “how famous the claimants are, it boils down to that the defendants are not … Shaggy, Coldplay, Rihanna or Jay-Z. If they were they would have been treated in a very different way.”
Sheeran, it was alleged, was targeted with a “concerted plan” by Chokri’s former management to secure his interest in the singer, with Oh Why being sent to those around the star, including the late SBTV founder Jamal Edwards.
It was also claimed Sheeran must have been aware of Chokri because they appeared on SBTV at about the same time, 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.
Musicology experts gave contrasting views at the trial. While the American forensic musicologist Anthony Ricigliano said it was “objectively unlikely” that any similarities between the two tracks “result from copying”, Christian Siddell, another musicologist, said he found melodic similarities were “so numerous and striking that the possibility of independent creation is… highly improbable”.
Both agreed that neither of them had found “the same combination of either the ‘Oh Why’ phrase – combined phonetic sound plus pitch and rhythm – nor the ‘Oh I’ phrase – combined phonetic sound plus pitch and rhythm – in any other compositions”.
Shape Of You – which Sheeran said he had originally envisaged being performed by Rihanna or Little Mix, was a worldwide hit, becoming the bestselling song of 2017 in the UK.