The English red-haired singer was slapped with an accusation for copying “note-for-note” from a song called Amazing, released by the X Factor 2010 winner, Matt Cardle. Songwriters Thomas Leonard and Martin Harrington sued Sheeran, accusing him of “unabashedly taking credit” for their work. The songwriters claimed in the complaint that the chorus of Photograph, shockingly, had 39 identical notes and such “coincidence” in similarities is “instantly recognizable to the ordinary observer”.
The songwriters further went on to claim “This copying is, in many instances, verbatim, note-for-note copying, [and] makes up nearly one half of Photograph”. Sheeran had a breakthrough in his career with this box-office hit, which reached No. 10 on the US Billboard Hot 100 and No. 15 in the UK singles chart. The video itself has more than 300m views on YouTube. While, Cardle’s track Amazing, peaked at No. 84 in the UK in 2012.
The songwriters, Thomas Leonard and Martin Harrington; who has also written hits for Kylie Minogue, 5ive and Emma Bunton; sued Sheeran for damages amounting to $20m. They accused Sheeran and his songwriting partner, Johnny McDaid from Snow Patrol on grounds that the duo "copied and exploited, without authorization or credit, the work of other active, professional songwriters on a breathtaking scale."
Lawyers for Sheeran initially said the lawsuit made “scandalous allegations” and argued that it was “too complicated”. An order signed by Judge James Selna at a California court said the case had been dismissed after an undisclosed agreement had been reached between the parties.
Seems like Sheeran can’t get out of lawsuits and plagiarism scandals. It is the second plagiarism lawsuit taken out against Sheeran, with another ongoing case of him plagiarizing the melody, harmony and composition of Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get it On, in his track Thinking Out Loud.
Dr Joe Bennett, a musicologist based at Boston Conservatory at Berklee who specializes in music copyright, agrees with Thomas Leonard and Martin Harrington, saying that the track Photograph was a “straightforward” case. Melodically “there are so many similarities between these two particular works, it is hard to dispute that it was obviously plagiarized and I’m not surprised they settled”. On the other hand, Consultant musicologist Christian Siddell, believes, the settlement should not be interpreted as an admission of purposeful plagiarism by Sheeran.
Dr Bennett also points out that “[Sheeran’s case] is most likely an example of cryptomnesia – inadvertent plagiarism – when you mistake a memory for a new idea, which can accidentally slip through in the songwriting process,” Bennett said, assuming that Sheeran must have heard the track before composing his own.
He also stated that copyright disputes had existed ever since pop music began making money. However, he added, there had been an “alarming rise” in copyright cases, particularly in the US, since the trial in 2015 which saw the Marvin Gaye estate awarded $7.4m after Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were found to have copied Gaye’s music to create Blurred Lines.
The Blurred Lines case has gone to appeal and Siddell said he and many in the industry expected the verdict to be overturned because “melodically there’s very little similarity – it sounded the same so that was enough to convince a jury”. He further opinioned “The processes of deciding these things is different in American courts, where they use a jury, as opposed to the UK, where you get an informed and knowledgeable judge who decides.”