from the copyrighting-out-loud dept

To hear the recording industry tell the story, copyright is the only thing protecting musicians from poverty and despair. Of course, that’s always been a myth. Copyright was designed to benefit the middlemen and gatekeepers, such as the record labels, over the artists themselves. That’s why the labels have a long history of never paying artists.

But over the last few years, Ed Sheeran has been highlighting the ways in which (beyond the “who gets paid” aspect of all of this) modern copyright is stifling rather than incentivizing music creation — directly in contrast to what we’re told it’s supposed to be doing.

We’ve talked about Sheeran before, as he’s been sued repeatedly by people claiming that his songs sound too much like other songs. Sheeran has always taken a much more open approach to copyright and music, noting that kids pirating his music is how he became famous in the first place. He’s also stood up for kids who had accounts shut down via copyright claims for playing his music.

But the lawsuits have been where he’s really highlighted the absurdity of modern copyright law. After winning one of the lawsuits a year ago, he put out a heartfelt statement on how ridiculous the whole thing was. A key part:

There’s only so many notes and very few chords used in pop music. Coincidence is bound to happen if 60,000 songs are being released every day on Spotify—that’s 22 million songs a year—and there’s only 12 notes that are available.

In the aftermath of this, Sheeran has said that he’s now filming all of his recent songwriting sessions, just in case he needs to provide evidence that he and his songwriting partners came up with a song on their own, which is depressing in its own right.

In the latest case, which just concluded last week, Sheeran said that if he lost he’d probably quit music altogether, as it’s just not worth it.

…when asked what he would do if the court ruled against him, Sheeran said, “If that happens, I’m done. I’m stopping… To have someone come in and say, ‘We don’t believe you, you must have stole it’… [I] find insulting…”

He went on, “I find it really insulting to work my whole life as a singer-songwriter and diminish it.”

Doesn’t seem like copyright helping to create incentives for new works, does it? It sure sounds like copyright stifling creativity and artistry. Elsewhere, he’s noted similar things, talking about how songwriters know there are only so many notes, and certain songs are going to sound somewhat similar to one another. He notes that actual songwriters all seem to get this.

“I feel like in the songwriting community, everyone sort of knows that there’s four chords primarily that are used and there’s eight notes. And we work with what we’ve got, with doing that.”

[….]

“I had a song that I wrote for Keith Urban, and it sort of sounded like a Coldplay song,” Sheeran added, referring the country singer’s 2018 record “Parallel Line.” “So I emailed Chris Martin and I said, ‘This sounds like your tune. Can we clear it?’ And he went, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. No.’”

He added: “And on the song I made sure they put, ‘I think it sounds like “Everglow,” Coldplay.’ But he was just like, ‘Nah, I know how songs are written. And I know you didn’t go into the studio and go, I want to write this.’”

Of course, with this latest lawsuit it wasn’t actually a songwriter suing. It was a private equity firm that had purchased the rights from one of the songwriters (not Marvin Gaye) of Marvin Gaye’s hit song “Let’s Get it On.”

The claim over Thinking Out Loud was originally lodged in 2018, not by Gaye’s family but by investment banker David Pullman and a company called Structured Asset Sales, which has acquired a portion of the estate of Let’s Get It On co-writer Ed Townsend.

Thankfully, Sheeran won the case as the jury sided with him over Structured Asset Sales. Sheeran, once again, used the attention to highlight just how broken copyright is if these lawsuits are what’s coming out of it:

“I’m obviously very happy with the outcome of the case, and it looks like I’m not having to retire from my day job after all. But at the same time I’m unbelievably frustrated that baseless claims like this are able to go to court.

“We’ve spent the last eight years talking about two songs with dramatically different lyrics, melodies, and four chords which are also different, and used by songwriters every day all over the world. These chords are common building blocks used long before Let’s Get it On was written, and will be used to make music long after we’re all gone.

“They are in a songwriters’ alphabet, our toolkit, and should be there for all of us to use. No one owns them or the way that they are played, in the same way that no one owns the color blue.”

He concluded the speech by saying he would never allow himself to be a “piggybank for anyone to shake.”

Good for him, though one hopes he’ll also help push for better copyright laws that would stop this kind of nonsense, and help lead to a broader rethinking of copyright in our time.

And… apparently, right after winning, Sheeran released his latest album (Subtract) based on a bunch of other challenges and traumatic experiences he’s gone through recently. It’s unfortunate that bogus copyright trials leading him to consider dropping out of the music world entirely added to the trauma.

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Companies: structured asset sales

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