Ed Sheeran vs Sam Chokri

Source: By Suanshu Khurana: The Indian Express

Thirty one-year-old British pop star Ed Sheeran’s global smash hit Shape of You – 2017’s most-streamed piece, is being played a lot in the London High Court these days. It’s because grime artiste Sam Chokri and producer Ross O’Donoghue have accused Sheeran and two of his co-writers Johnny McDaid and Steve Mac of ripping off the main hook from their 2015 song Oh Why for the unmistakably catchy ‘Oh I’ bit in Shape of You – the song that remains most popular ever on Spotify, apart from being the most downloaded since 2017.

Chokri, who performs under the name Sami Switch, claims Shape of You infringes “particular lines and phrases” of his track and is “strikingly similar”.

In this copyright infringement battle that also involves forensic musicologists, Sheeran, McDaid, and Steve Mac have denied the claim. When questioned in court by Chokri’s lawyer Andrew Sutcliffe, Sheeran said he wasn’t aware of Chokri’s existence and had never heard the song before the court case. He spoke of his “long and very successful career writing original songs,” adding that he wouldn’t have had it if he plagiarised.

Who is Sam Chokri and what is his connection with Ed Sheeran?

Sam Chokri is an upcoming grime artiste from Caversham in Reading. He and Sheeran appeared together on the British online music platform SBTV. According to Sutcliffe, Sheeran also shouted out Switch’s name at Reading Festival in 2011 after his friend Jamal Edwards, the late founder of SBTV, asked him to do so.

In 2015, when Oh Why – a song that deals with questions of war and peace, hunger and death – was being promoted, Artists and Company (A&C), which was working with Chokri, was trying for Sheeran to listen to the song through a similar circle of people. They wanted Sheeran to recognise that Chokri was talented. A&C’s top management was quite upset in 2017 when Shape of You came out without any credits for Chokri. Sheeran and his co-writers claim to have never heard the song. In fact, Sheeran has called the hook entirely “commonplace”.

Is there a similarity between the two songs?

In the simplest possible terms, the hook is unmistakably similar. The melodic formation and the rhythmic clicking seem similar and so does the melodic progression, which is something that forensic musicologists from Chokri’s side have claimed. But Sheeran and some musicologists have also called the similar-sounding hook “entirely commonplace” because the melodic structure was extremely common.

Shape of You is set on the pentatonic scale – which is perhaps the most commonly used scale in the history of music all over the world, including in India, which is probably why it was easy for Indian classical musicians to sing the song with Indian melodic syllables. Weeks after the song came out, Minneapolis-based software engineer Vinod Krishnan could be seen crooning bol taans and mridangam bols along with singer Aditya Rao. US-based composer, digital artiste and tech enthusiast, Mahesh Raghvan, included interludes in the piece by using an iPad like a continuum fingerboard and created musical slides, which are so pertinent to Carnatic classical music.

Chokri’s lawyers also played the snippets from both the songs to prove their point, apart from showing a clip from the recording of the song wherein Sheeran is talking about changing “Oh I” because “it’s too close to the bone”. In his reply, Sheeran said that he was talking about No Diggity – a song by an American R&B group.

Is Sheeran fighting the infringement battle for the first time?

No, he isn’t. So far, Sheeran has been involved in multiple infringement claims, the most significant of them being the one with the makers of the song No Scrubs by the American girl group TLC. The claim at the time was that the melodic contour had sounded similar, which in the case of No Scrubs can even be missed by ears not so attuned to pop music. Sheeran and his co-writers eventually settled it by giving the musicians a 15 per cent share in the royalties.

Another claim that Sheeran settled out of court was about his song Strip That Down which was sung by One Direction singer Liam Payne. Sheeran co-wrote the song with Mac – also the co-writer in Shape of You and Payne. Right after the song was released, social media was abuzz with the similarities with Jamaican-American reggae star Shaggy’s 2000 hit, It Wasn’t Me. The publishers now pay a 25 per cent royalty to the writers and publishers of It Wasn’t Me.

Another case is that of the song Photograph, which copied “note-for-note” a song titled Amazing by X Factor contestant Matt Cardle. The songwriters claimed one-half of the song was completely plagiarised. A $20 million lawsuit was settled outside the court. Now the creators of Amazing get a 35 per cent share in Sheeran’s royalty.

Sheeran was also involved in another lawsuit for plagiarising the Marvin Gaye number Let’s Get It On for his song Thinking Out Loud.

How does the case affected Sheeran?

Sheeran gets about £20 million in royalties for Shape of You. Since the case, they remain suspended.