In the case of Shape of You, it all centres on a brief but repeated melodic snippet in which Switch sings “Why oh why oh why oh why” and Sheeran sings “I oh I oh I oh.” Sheeran’s defence (and I think it’s a good one) is that he had never heard of Switch, and therefore any similarity is entirely coincidental. Much has been made of the fact that he settled a multimillion pound lawsuit on his 2015 song Photograph, brought by the composers of an earlier song, Amazing, performed by X Factor winner Matt Cardle.
In court, Sheeran claimed to have been “bruised” by that experience. “Even though I felt that I had done nothing wrong, we decided to settle the case because of the money and time it would take to fight it. However, that left me with a very bad feeling afterwards. The decision to settle felt morally weird given that we were innocent of the allegations made. It made me feel like I did not want to play the song anymore.”
That line really struck a chord with me. The weaponisation of lawsuits to claim part ownership of copyright of big hits (because, let’s face it, nobody sues for a share of a flop) threatens the creative freedom needed to actually make music.
There are only 12 notes in a scale, and there are strongly established formats for chord sequences and song patterns. Songwriters are constantly mimicking, repeating and building on what other songwriters have done, sometimes consciously, often subconsciously.
As that great rock’n’roll sage Keith Richards once said, “There’s only one song, and Adam and Eve wrote it; the rest is variation”. From primitive man’s drumbeats in the prehistoric savannah to the techno throb banging out of your local high street disco, every song is related to every other song in some essential respects, passed along a chain of musician, each briefly lending their own talents only for the music itself to be passed along again.