Free Ed Sheeran! Songwriters Explain Why the ‘Let’s Get It On’ Case Was a Near-Disaster
After threatening to quit his musical career if he lost the case, Ed Sheeran was, to say the least, highly relieved Thursday (May 4) when a federal jury ruled that his song “Thinking Out Loud” (co-written with Amy Wadge) doesn’t infringe on the copyright of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” But the entire community of professional songwriters was also watching the case closely, and with no small degree of trepidation. “If this case had turned out differently, it would have completely changed the landscape,” says James “JHart” Abrahart, who’s written songs for Justin Bieber, Usher, Camila Cabello, and Måneskin.
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In the new episode of Rolling Stone Music Now, songwriters Jenna Andrews (who co-wrote BTS’ “Butter” and “Permission to Dance,” and has written for Noah Cyrus and Jennifer Lopez), and Jamie Hartman (who’s written for the Backstreet Boys, Lewis Capaldi, Jennifer Hudson, and Calvin Harris), along with JHart, discuss the Sheeran lawsuit’s potential ramifications, the limits of musical originality in pop music, the continuing fallout from the “Blurred Lines” case (in which Robin Thicke’s song — written by Pharrell Williams — was found to have infringed on Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” based solely on groove and vibe) and more.
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In the episode, the songwriters say they were particularly horrified by the argument that the song’s chord progression alone was protected by copyright — it was impossible for them to imagine that such basic elements of music could be kept off limits. “There’s only so many chords that you can use,” Andrews says.
“Ed and Amy had a new thought over a traditional arrangement,” says Hartman. “Coming up with an original lyric and an original melody is new. That’s the brief. That’s what you have to do daily as a professional writer.”
A verdict against Sheeran would’ve had a powerful chilling effect, the writers say — but at the same time, the “Blurred Lines” case and other recent rulings have already left songwriters and artists feeling paranoid, which means nascent songs frequently get scrapped before anyone hears them. “It’s always kind of frustrating when someone’s like, ‘Oh, this reminds you of something,'” says Andrews. “And sometimes they can’t even name the song, but they’re so nervous that they’re stepping on something that they’re just like, let’s go to something else.”
“I have a couple colleagues who have been to court,” says JHart. “And one of them specifically, it’s really affected them. They’re really sort of scared in rooms and it feels triggering for them. And it’s just stifling for people. I’ve seen how it affects people, obviously financially as well, but just being able to be free and be creative.”
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