In Depth

Ed Sheeran vs. Marvin Gaye - and five more plagiarism battles

Jury will decide whether English singer-songwriter copied Marvin Gaye in 2014 hit Thinking Out Loud

A jury will decide whether Ed Sheeran ripped off a Marvin Gaye hit in his 2014 single Thinking Out Loud, after a US judge rejected a request to dismiss a plagiarism lawsuit.

Lawyers representing the estate of Gaye’s co-writer Ed Townsend allege that elements of Sheeran’s Grammy-winning single, from his album X, were lifted from the legendary soul singer’s 1973 track Let’s Get It On.

Sheeran has denied any plagiarism and asked for the case to be thrown out, but New York district judge Louis Stanton has ruled that it should go ahead.

In a decision made public on Thursday, the judge cited “substantial similarities” between the tracks, as well as occasions when the English singer-songwriter sang both songs as a medley at live performances, reports NME.

It is one of two lawsuits filed against Sheeran and co-writer Amy Padge alleging similarities between his 2014 hit and Gaye’s erotic anthem.

In the second, Structured Asset Sales (SAS), which owns a third of Townsend's estate, is suing for $100m (£79m), Sky News reports. The lawsuit alleges that Sheeran and Padge lifted “melody, rhythms, harmonies, drums, bass line, backing chorus, tempo, syncopation and looping” from Gaye’s hit.

Sheeran is far from the first household name musician to be accused of ripping off past hitmakers. Here are five other plagiarism cases that divided the music industry:

Got To Give It Up, Marvin Gaye/Blurred Lines, Robin Thicke ft. Pharrell Williams 

Blurred Lines's lyrics proved to be controversial, with critics saying they were ambivalent about the concept of consent. The tune itself also came under scrutiny for its similarities to Marvin Gaye's 1977 hit Got To Give It Up.

Gaye's family sued co-writers Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, accusing them of incorporating too much of the 1977 track's funky sound in their 2013 single. An LA court agreed, awarding the Gaye family half of the song's future royalties and ordering Thicke and Williams to pay out $5.3m (£4.3m) in damages – "one of the largest pay-outs in music-copyright history," says Rolling Stone.

Brave, Sara Bareilles/Roar, Katy Perry

Brave and Roar were both released in 2013 and would qualify for a spot on any female empowerment playlist worth its salt, but some music fans argued that the similarities between the songs went much further.

Bareilles dismissed the idea that Perry had copied her song, but told the Hollywood Reporter she enjoyed the extra attention the controversy gave her single. "I was like, 'You guys want to go get [mad] about something and buy my music, that's great'," she said.

Ob La Di, Ob La Da, The Beatles / You Don't You Get a Job?, The Offspring

When punk rock band The Offspring released Why Don't You Get a Job? from their fifth album, Americana, in 1999, some critics suggested the song contained more than a passing similarity to The Beatles's 1968 single Ob La Di, Ob La Da.

In fact, MTV reported at the time that one Los Angeles DJ was interspersing his playing of the Offspring track with snippets from the Beatles hit. However, no action was ever taken regarding the alleged resemblance. 

He's So Fine, The Chiffons/My Sweet Lord, George Harrison

On the surface, the 1963 doo-wop classic and George Harrison's soulful 1971 tribute to Hare Krishna don't seem to have much in common. But when the copyright owner of the earlier track sued the former Beatle, Harrison admitted that the two compositions were musically very similar and offered to settle the case. 

The copyright owner rejected his offer, leading to a notoriously protracted court case. In 1976, a judge ruled that Harrison had "subconsciously copied" the tune. The former Beatle was ordered to pay damages, although the finer points of the case were not conclusively settled until 1998.

Sweet Little Sixteen, Chuck Berry/Surfin' USA, The Beach Boys
 

Chuck Berry's unique sound, blending rock and roll with country, influenced hundreds of aspiring pop and rock musicians. But it apparently inspired the Beach Boys a little too much when they wrote one of their most famous hits, Surfin' USA.

"There's no arguing here," says Consequence of Sound. "Surfin' USA is the same song as Sweet Little Sixteen, alright."

Composer Brian Wilson maintained that the song was a "tribute" to Berry, but with a plagiarism lawsuit looking likely, Beach Boys manager Murry Wilson gave Chuck Berry a songwriting credit on the track.

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