Why Ed Sheeran Might Need to Pay up in Copyright Infringement Lawsuits


Ed Sheeran is having a tough summer. In June, the writers of Matt Cardle’s single “Amazing” slapped Sheeran with a $20 million copyright infringement lawsuit, claiming that Sheeran’s 2014 song “Photograph,” from his album X, copied “note-for-note” Cardle’s “Amazing,” written in 2009. On August 10, Sheeran was hit with another copyright infringement lawsuit, this time by the heirs of Ed Townsend, who composed and co-wrote the lyrics for Marvin Gaye’s classic song “Let’s Get It On” in 1973. The latest lawsuit claims that Sheeran’s song “Thinking Out Loud” (Sheeran’s first Number One single, also from from X) possesses melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic elements that are “substantially and/or strikingly similar” to “Let’s Get It On.” It’s anyone’s guess as to how these lawsuits are settled, but an unfavorable verdict against Sheeran could have ramifications on songwriters everywhere.

In both cases, Sheeran is being sued because, in essence, the musical structure of his songs is too similar to someone else’s. For instance, the “Photograph” lawsuit alleges “The chorus sections of Amazing and the infringing Photograph share 39 identical notes – meaning the notes are identical in pitch, rhythmic duration, and placement in the measure.”

These types of cases, which come down to musical, as opposed to lyrical, similarities, seem to be up for grabs. In 2015, attorney Richard Busch, who is representing the writers of Matt Cardle’s “Amazing,” successfully sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams in a copyright infringement case that claimed Thicke’s and Williams’s song “Blurred Lines” was too similar in musical structure to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” A judge awarded Marvin Gaye’s family $5.3 million and a share of future royalties. On the other hand, in June, Led Zeppelin successfully defended itself in a copyright infringement lawsuit that claimed the opening chords to Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven” plagiarized guitar chords in Spirit’s song “Taurus.”

Why did Led Zeppelin emerge victorious over musical infringement but Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams did not? The answer will determine whether Sheeran is liable for millions of dollars in damages. And, as I blogged recently, the matter is a murky one. These factors will likely decide the outcome:

  • How integral is the music to the entire song? This issue will likely determine whether Sheeran wins or loses. Thicke and Williams were successfully sued because the recurring backbeat and chorus that form the structure of “Blurred Lines” was too similar to that of “Got to Give It Up.” On the other hand, although the opening chord progression of “Stairway to Heaven” is similar to a guitar part in “Taurus,” the resemblance lasts but a few seconds. Thicke and Williams might have emerged victorious had a jury believed the same was true with “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up.” In Sheeran’s case, the lawsuits are basically arguing that Sheeran stole the foundation upon which he built his songs, as opposed to nicking just a few elements here and there. Based on the outcome of the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit, Sheeran is definitely in a tough position with both his lawsuits. He may very well need pay up.
  • How original is the music in question? Team Led Zeppelin argued that the songs “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven” were based on common chord progressions that date back to the 17th Century and can be heard in songs such as the Beatles’ “Michelle.” In other words, the musicians were adapting music that is in the public domain, and any similarity to other songs was entirely coincidental. On the other hand, in the 1970s, George Harrison was successfully sued for copyright infringement because his song “My Sweet Lord” was too similar to a very distinctive, original melody in the Chiffons song “He’s So Fine.” Team Sheeran may find themselves needing to prove that the songs in question are not entirely original — an argument that comes down to successful homework and producing musicologists who sound convincing enough. But this point can be difficult for a defendant to successfully argue. With “Taurus” and “Stairway to Heaven,” a jury determined that despite Team Led Zeppelin’s arguments, “Taurus” was original enough to justify Spirit owning its copyright.

In any event, songwriters have been put on notice: attorneys are watching your every move. What you determine to be creative inspiration could land you in court. And you might not possess Led Zeppelin’s deep pockets to defend yourself. The band paid $800,000 in legal fees in the “Stairway” case. Your creative reputation could come down a judge, a jury with zero musical knowledge, and a whole lot of money.

How Houlihan’s Gives Emerging Artists a Voice

Brands are the new DJs. Amid the demise of the music industry, companies ranging from American Express to Coca-Cola now provide exposure for musicians just like music impresarios Murray the K and Alan Freed once did. For indie artists, Houlihan’s Restaurants has a longstanding tradition of providing exposure through the music playlists in its 83 U.S. establishments.

Recently, Houlihan’s put its marketing muscle behind lesser-known artists by launching H-Listed. Each month, Houlihan’s showcases an H-Listed artist by featuring the artist’s music in each Houlihan’s restaurant and providing 1 million impressions via the Houlihan’s website, email outreach, and social media presence. Houlihan’s has already created buzz for its first three H-Listed artists, Big Harp, Feathers, and the Parlotones, starting with a kick-off event at the South by Southwest Music Conference and Festival and continuing with online/offline promotions that include free song downloads.

To learn more about H-Listed, I interviewed Jen Gulvik, vice president of marketing and creative director for Houlihan’s. During our conversation, she explained how music flourishes in the Houlihan’s culture through efforts like H-Listed and the company’s involvement in VH1 Save the Music. As Gulvik’s experience shows, music is more than a means to build a brand for Houlihan’s — it’s a way of life.

Let’s talk about your role at Houlihan’s and how you helped H-Listed get launched.

I am responsible for all of marketing in the traditional sense, but also the customer experience. Ultimately, I am responsible for anything that happens in the restaurant, ranging from the uniforms we wear to the music we play. And obviously music is part of the customer experience. Houlihan’s has chosen to make the music you hear in our restaurants a point of differentiation, similar to the way some hotels make music part of the experience they offer.

H-Listed is our program to offer guests musical discovery while Houlihan’s helps emerging artists. Our intent is to make people in our restaurants feel like they are enjoying a sense of discovery in a stylish surrounding. We deliberately choose unfamiliar musicians such as Big Harp, who we are featuring for the month of May, and the Parlotones, who were H-Listed in April.

Their music is promoted and used in our restaurant playlists, which include many other lesser-known artists through a selection put together each month by PlayNetwork, our outside partner that handles all of our music licensing, artist and label relations, and production in conjunction with H-Listed.


Starbucks has been curating music for years in its stores, and I have always wanted to do something like that. Music often falls under Operations in the dining industry, but fortunately music is the responsibility of Marketing at Houlihan’s. When I ran the idea for H-Listed past PlayNetwork, they had all the resources and relationships to make it happen.

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