Issue 185: 2019 01 17: Composers Beware

17 January 2019

Watch Out, Composers

A War of Two Ed’s.

By Jack Wippell

On the 3rd of January this year, a US judge rejected Ed Sheeran’s call to dismiss a lawsuit that accuses him of plagiarising Marvin Gaye’s 1973 hit Let’s Get It On.  Instead, the case will now be decided by a jury.  The suit was originally brought forward not by Gaye’s own descendants but by David Pullman, creator of the famous Bowie Bonds, who seems to have formed a deal with the son of Gaye’s co-writer, Ed Townsend.

On the surface the songs are undoubtedly similar.  Both have practically the same baseline, the same drum beat, similar chord progressions and are set in the same tempo.  One might think these similarities enough to win the case for Pullman.  Indeed, the lawsuit goes on to claim that “no other identified song in history, prior to Let’s Get It On, includes a I III IV V or a I I6 IV V progression at the same tempo of 80bpm”.  Still to conclude that Ed Sheeran copied the song, and indeed that the original song was original at all, is quite another matter.

First, the aspects of the songs which overlap are very simplistic in terms of their composition, something which must be recognised if a proper comparison is to be made.  The drum rhythm is sparse and sticks to the strong beats of each bar, as many drum parts do, with the bassline walking around the foundational notes of each chord (if the chords were a C major followed by an A minor, the bass would play a C and then ‘walk down’ to the A, perhaps through the note in-between (a B)), which is also very common in all realms of music.  Is it really possible for an artist to copyright such a simple progression?  That would seem odd as, if it is, all real creative credits should probably be owed to some long dead composer; a chorale prelude in Bach’s Orgelbüchlein collection actually contains an identical progression to the so-called ‘unique one’ of Let’s Get It On.  Not so unique after all!

Second, one need only listen to the songs to realise that Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud has a totally different melody and structure.  Melodic plagiarisms are normally much more obviously copied.   The case put forward by Pullman does argue that the melodies overlap at some points but the document comparing the two songs, which focuses so much on the ‘copying of rhythm’, suddenly drops that line of argument and only presents the actual notes used when comparing the melody.  These are, of course, the same notes used by pretty much every single song written in that key as they are the very notes that make up that key!  It will be interesting to see what the jury makes of it.

But the potential impact of this case goes far beyond the private interests of the parties.  The worry, and what all of us who enjoy listening to music should be concerned with, is the impact it will have on new musicians.  Influences are an intrinsic part of composition.  That is, after all, why we have musical genres in the first place.  Composition at root level boils down to choices made by a composer of chord progressions and instrument combinations, all carrying with them a common, identifiable sound.  If it turns out that it is possible for companies and individuals to own chord progressions and tempos (the very foundations of music which will almost inevitably have been used before) that will mean a very dark future for anyone wishing to try their hand at composition.   If David Pullman wins the case, he and Ed Townsend’s descendants will have damaged the musical world that both Ed’s have contributed so much to.


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