This is The Legal Beat, a weekly newsletter about music law from Billboard Pro, offering you a one-stop cheat sheet of big new cases, important rulings, and all the fun stuff in between.
This week: Ed Sheeran wins his “Shape of You” trial but warns that “baseless” copyright suits are harming the music industry, Bob Dylan defeats a lawsuit over his huge catalog sale to Universal filed by the widow of a former co-writer, Justin Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun faces allegations that he broke a promise to a vocal tuning producer and more.
THE BIG STORY: Ed Sheeran Has Had Enough Copyright Litigation
After a London judge ruled last week that Ed Sheeran’s chart-topping 2017 hit “Shape of You” didn’t infringe the copyright of an earlier song, the pop superstar sounded more exhausted than celebratory. “I just want to say: I’m not an entity, I’m not a corporation, I’m a human being and a father and a husband and a son,” Sheeran said in a video statement posted to Instagram. “Lawsuits are not a pleasant experience and I hope that this ruling means in the future baseless claims like this can be avoided.” If Sheeran is tired of litigation, it’s hard to blame him. In 2016, he was accused of stealing “Photograph” from an earlier song called “Amazing.” Sheeran quickly settled that case but has since said he regrets doing so and believes that it may have opened the “floodgates” to more lawsuits. Then in 2018, he was hit with another copyright case over “The Rest of Our Life,” a song he co-wrote that was recorded by Tim McGraw and Faith Hill. And he’s been litigating for five years and counting over allegations that he copied his “Thinking Out Loud” from Marvin Gaye’s iconic “Let’s Get It On.” In the recent UK lawsuit, an artist named Sami Chokri and a music producer Ross O’Donoghue claimed that “Shape of You” – a huge hit that spent 12 weeks atop the Hot 100 – lifted material from their 2015 song called “Oh Why.” The pair said the “Oh I, Oh I, Oh I” in Sheeran’s song was “strikingly similar” to an “Oh why, Oh why, Oh why” in their track. But in a ruling on Wednesday, the judge sided decisively with Sheeran. He ruled there was no evidence that Sheeran had intentionally or “subconsciously” copied the earlier song, and that the two phrases “play very different roles in their respective songs.” He said the allegedly-copied portion was “so short, simple, commonplace and obvious” that it simply “is not credible that Mr. Sheeran sought out inspiration from other songs to come up with it.” In the wake of the decision, Sheeran lamented not only the personal toll the case had taken on him but also the prevalence of such cases, saying they are filed with “the idea that a settlement will be cheaper than taking it to court” even when there’s no merit to the allegations. “It’s really damaging to the songwriting industry,” Sheeran said. “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.” If you’ve been following music laws for the past decade, Sheeran’s complaints should sound familiar. In the years since the controversial “Blurred Lines” trial, many lawyers and musicians have warned about the impact that ever more copyright lawsuits will have on musical creativity. Artists and companies have become “paranoid” about infringement suits, seeking out forensic musicologists to assess their work and taking out errors and omissions insurance policies. In 2018, the Recording Industry Association of America – no softie on copyright policy – filed a brief warning that infringement rulings threatened to “overprotect” existing music at the expense of the next generation. Now those same critiques are coming from one of the world’s top pop stars. In an interview with BBC Two’s Newsnight, Sheeran said he now films all of his recording sessions as potential evidence for future lawsuits, but that the fear of a false allegation is still there, taking a toll. “I personally think the best feeling in the world is the euphoria around the first idea of writing a great song,” he said. “That feeling has now turned into ‘oh wait, let’s stand back for a minute.’ You find yourself in the moment, second-guessing yourself.”
Other top stories this week…
IT’S ALL OVER NOW, COURT SAYS – Bob Dylan won a ruling by a New York appeals court rejecting a lawsuit that claimed he owed a portion of his huge Universal catalog sale to the widow of Jacques Levy, a songwriter who helped create “Hurricane” and nine other songs on Dylan’s 1976 album Desire. She said she deserved a $7.25 million cut of the $300 million publishing sale to Universal, but the court ruled that Levy had signed away his rights years ago. SCOOTER FACING LAWSUIT OVER BIEBER VOCALS – Justin Bieber’s manager Scooter Braun was hit with a lawsuit by a producer named Chris “Tek” O’Ryan, who claims that Braun reneged on a deal to pay for work tuning the vocals on Bieber’s tracks. O’Ryan claimed he was promised a point — 1% of master recording revenue — on dozens of Bieber songs he helped produce starting in 2018, but never received it: “Having now been effectively cast aside by the artist he spent more than a decade helping to build up, Tek has no choice but to turn to the courts.” TORY LANEZ IN HOT WATER – Tory Lanez was briefly handcuffed and placed in custody after a Los Angeles judge ruled that the rapper had violated court orders imposed as part of the criminal case over his alleged July 2020 shooting of Megan Thee Stallion. The orders required Lanez to avoid contact with Stallion, but the judge said he had posted to social media about her, like one in which he alluded to a key text exchange and then seemed to speak directly to Stallion. Lanez quickly posted additional bail and was set free later that afternoon. A trial is set for September. SNOOP ACCUSER DROPS CASE FOR NOW – A woman who recently accused Snoop Dogg of sexual assault dropped her lawsuit, asking a judge to dismiss the case in its entirety.” But the Jane Doe’s attorneys left the door open for her to refile the same accusations in the future. She sued in February, just days before the rapper was set to perform at the Super Bowl; his attorneys have called the case “extortion” and say that “nothing remotely resembling plaintiff’s story” ever occurred. EX-BEACH BOY’S CLASS ACTION TOSSED OUT – A federal judge dismissed a class action filed by former Beach Boys member David Marks, who claimed Universal Music Group was potentially defrauding thousands of artists by underpaying streaming royalties. Marks – the so-called “Lost Beach Boy” who performed on several early albums – claimed UMG “artificially and clandestinely” reduced payments for certain foreign streams, but the judge ruled that he had made only “vague” accusations supported by little evidence. SENTENCING FOR R. KELLY SET FOR JUNE – R. Kelly will face sentencing this summer for his sex trafficking and racketeering convictions after a judge mostly refused his request to delay the sentencing by months. Kelly’s attorneys wanted to hold off until after the disgraced singer stands trial in August on separate child porn charges, citing concerns that information from the sentencing might be used against him at trial; prosecutors “strenuously” objected to such a delay, arguing that Kelly’s victims had already “waited years” to see justice. In a ruling last week, the judge set the date for June 16.