Ed Sheeran lawsuit: who won Shape of You copyright court case - did singer copy Sami Chokri’s Oh Why?

Ed Sheeran had been taken to trial by Sami Chorki and Ross O’Donoghue over claims that his 2017 hit plagiarised their song Oh Why

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Singer and songwriter Ed Sheeran has won his High Court copyright battle following the trial held last month in which Sheeran and his Shape of You co-writers, John McDaid and Steven McCutheon, faced accusations of plagiarising the song Oh Why by Sami Chokri and Ross O’Donoghue.

The pair claimed that an “Oh I” hook in Shape Of You is “strikingly similar” to an “Oh Why” refrain in their own track.

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During the 11-day long trial, Sheeran denied all allegations of copyright infringement and said that he “always tried to be completely fair” in crediting people who contribute to his albums.

The singer told the court he was trying to “clear my name” and denied using litigation to “intimidate” Chokri and O’Donoghue into abandoning the copyright dispute.

At one point, the musician was branded a “magpie” who “borrows” ideas from lesser known artists, a claim which he also denied.

Shape of You was released in 2017 and was at number one for 14 weeks in the UK, and was the best selling song of the year globally.

This is everything you need to know.

What did the judge say?

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In a ruling on Wednesday (6 March), Mr Justice Zacaroli concluded that Sheeran “neither deliberately nor subconsciously” copied a phrase from Oh Why when writing Shape Of You.

In his ruling, Mr Justice Zacaroli said: “Listening to the sounds as a whole … the two phrases play very different roles in their respective songs.

“The OW Hook (in Oh Why) is the central part of the song and reflects the song’s slow, brooding and questioning mood.

“Without diminishing its importance, the OI Phrase (in Shape of You) plays a very different role – something catchy to fill the bar before each repeated phrase ‘I’m in love with your body’.

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“The use of the first four notes of the rising minor pentatonic scale for the melody is so short, simple, commonplace and obvious in the context of the rest of the song that it is not credible that Mr Sheeran sought out inspiration from other songs to come up with it.

“As to the combination of elements upon which the defendants rely, even if Mr Sheeran had gone looking for inspiration, then Oh Why is far from an obvious source, given the stark contrast between the dark mood created by the OW Hook in Oh Why and the upbeat, dance feel that Mr Sheeran was looking to create with Shape.”

Ed Sheeran posing with his award in the media room during The BRIT Awards 2022 (Photo: Kate Green/Getty Images)Ed Sheeran posing with his award in the media room during The BRIT Awards 2022 (Photo: Kate Green/Getty Images)
Ed Sheeran posing with his award in the media room during The BRIT Awards 2022 (Photo: Kate Green/Getty Images)

Sheeran and his Shape of You co-writers released a joint statement following the ruling in which they said that they are “grateful that Mr Justice Zacaroli has delivered a clear and considered judgement which supports the position we have argued from the outset. Shape of You is original. We did not copy the defendants’ song”.

They also added that the cost of the lawsuit was greater than just financial.

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They said: “There is a cost on creativity. When we are tangled up in lawsuits, we are not making music or playing shows.

“There is a cost on our mental health. The stress this causes on all sides is immense. It affects so many aspects of our everyday lives and the lives of our families and friends.”

What was the lawsuit about?

Sheeran had been taken to court by Chokri and O’Donoghue, who claimed that Sheeran’s song Shape of You ripped off parts of their song Oh Why.

Chokri and O’Donoghue alleged that Shape of You infringes “particular lines and phrases” of their song which was released in 2015.

Sami Chokri arrives at the Rolls Building at the High Court in London (Photo: PA)Sami Chokri arrives at the Rolls Building at the High Court in London (Photo: PA)
Sami Chokri arrives at the Rolls Building at the High Court in London (Photo: PA)
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Their lawyers also claimed that Sheeran “habitually copies” other artists, and said that it was “extremely likely” that the singer had previously heard Oh Why.

Sheeran was labelled a “magpie” who allegedly “borrows” ideas from other artists to use in his songs, the High Court heard.

Andrew Sutcliffe QC, for Chokri and O’Donoghue, said that the question at the heart of the case is “How does Ed Sheeran write his music?” and whether he “makes things up as he goes along” in songwriting sessions.

The barrister said: “Or is his songwriting process in truth more nuanced and less spontaneous… involving the collection and development of ideas over time which reference and interpolate other artists? This is the defendants’ case.

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“Mr Sheeran is undoubtedly very talented, he is a genius. But he is also a magpie,” Mr Sutcliffe added.

“He borrows ideas and throws them into his songs, sometimes he will acknowledge it but sometimes he won’t.”

Ross O’Donoghue arriving at the the Rolls Building in central London (Photo: PA)Ross O’Donoghue arriving at the the Rolls Building in central London (Photo: PA)
Ross O’Donoghue arriving at the the Rolls Building in central London (Photo: PA)

The barrister said this “depends on who you are and whether he thinks he can get away with it”.

Sutcliffe said that if Chokri and O’Donoghue were “Shaggy, Coldplay, Rihanna or Jay-Z, if they were they would have been treated in a very different way”.

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The High Court also heard that PRS for music – the industry body that collects and distributes royalties – had suspended payment to Sheeran and his co-writers for the performances or broadcasts of Shape Of You.

What did Ed Sheeran say in court?

Sheeran denied the allegations that he “borrows” ideas from lesser known songwriters without credit.

He told the court: “I have always tried to be completely fair in crediting anyone who makes any contribution to any song I write.

“I do refer to other works on occasion when I write, as do many songwriters. If there is a reference to another work, I notify my team so that steps can be taken to obtain clearance.

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“I have been as scrupulous as I possibly can and have even given credits to people who I believe may have been no more than a mere influence for a songwriting element.

“This is because I want to treat other songwriters fairly.”

Ed Sheeran denied claims that he “borrows” ideas from unknown songwriters without acknowledgement (Photo: PA)Ed Sheeran denied claims that he “borrows” ideas from unknown songwriters without acknowledgement (Photo: PA)
Ed Sheeran denied claims that he “borrows” ideas from unknown songwriters without acknowledgement (Photo: PA)

When Sheeran’s lawyer, Ian Mill QC, asked him if he accepted the claim that he treats famous musicians differently to unknown artists in regards to “borrowing ideas”, Sheeran said that  that “if Mr Sutcliffe would have done his research”, he would have known there were “lots” of unknown artists he had cleared parts of songs with.

The singer gave several examples of when he had cleared aspects of songs with unknown artists, including sampling a part of a song from the TV show Buffy The Vampire Slayer from an “unknown composer”.

“All those examples are not famous artists that we’ve cleared songs with and that’s what I have to say on that,” he said.

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Sheeran’s lawyers told the High Court that the singer and his co-writers, Steven McCutcheon and John McDaid, have no recollection of having heard Oh Why before the legal fight and deny the allegations of copying.

Did Ed Sheeran copy Oh Why?

Have a listen to the two songs and see what you think.

Oh Why was released in 2015, under Chokri’s stage name Sami Switch. Shape of You was subsequently released in 2017.

Legal proceedings were launched by Sheeran and his co-writers in May 2018, with them asking the High Court to declare they had not infringed Mr Chokri and Mr O’Donoghue’s copyright.

In July 2018, Chokri and O’Donoghue issued their own claim for “copyright infringement, damages and an account of profits in relation to the alleged infringement”.

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During a second day of facing cross-examination in the trial, Sheeran frequently burst into song and hummed musical scales and melodies as he was questioned over how Shape Of You was written.

In his written evidence, the singer, who admitted in court he “can’t read music”, said the use of “minor pentatonic pattern” was “very common” and used in his song I See Fire and by Nina Simone.

He sang a snippet of I See Fire, Nina Simone’s Feeling Good, as well as Shape Of You, to the courtroom.

“If you put them all in the same key, they sound the same,” he said.

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Chokri and O’Donoghue claim that a central “Oh I” hook in Shape Of You is “strikingly similar” to an “Oh Why” refrain in their own composition.

What did Steven McCutcheon say in court?

Steven McCutcheon, who co-wrote Shape of You alongside John McDaid, told the court that the song was created “from scratch” at “extraordinary speed”.

He said that working with Sheeran on Shape Of You was an “extraordinary experience”.

“I had a headache at the end of the day,” he said, adding: “It was the first time I had written with anyone like this. It was incredible.”

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Sutcliffe suggested one explanation for the recording session on October 12 2016 was that Sheeran was “unlike any musician you ever worked with”.

But he alternatively suggested it was because the singer had “already worked out how he wanted this song to sound” and “already had lyrics and ideas which he was able to deploy at speed”.

McCutcheon said he disagreed, adding of Sheeran: “The speed that he writes is extraordinary to the point that we can write 26 songs in a week”.

In his written witness statement, the producer, who has worked with artists including Boyzone, Westlife, JLS, Clean Bandit, Pink and Bastille, said creating Shape Of You was a “rapid process”.

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He said he had a “clear recollection that Ed, Johnny and I created Shape of You from scratch at Rokstone Studios on the day of our first meeting”.

McCutcheon told the hearing that he initially supplied the marimba sound on the track and was also “chipping in with lyrics and melody on the day”.

He disagreed with a suggestion that Sheeran led the session, later adding: “He was coming up with the whole song with Johnny and myself at extraordinary speed.”

In his written statement, the producer described the singer “spontaneously singing a stream of melodic and lyrical ideas” and being “a whirlwind of ideas”.

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“It was such a quick process, it was hard to keep up,” he said, adding: “None of the melodic, musical or lyrical elements existed before we started work in the studio together.”

McCutcheon said in his written statement he “strongly” disagreed with an apparent suggestion that the two occasions showed he had “a habit of plagiarising other writers”.

He wrote: “I always strive to create totally original songs unless I feel, in a particular case, that it would enhance a song to use a reference to another work.

“If I do so, I give credit where credit is due and inform my publisher so that clearance can be arranged.

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“There is nothing wrong with referencing other songs in that way if clearance is obtained.

“I am an internationally successful writer of many years’ standing – it would be totally unacceptable to me to go around copying the work of others in the manner suggested, and I would not have achieved the success I have if I did so.”

What did the music experts say?

Musicology experts gave contrasting views at the High Court trial over whether Shape of You has “significant similarities” or is “distinctively different” from Oh Why.

American forensic musicologist Anthony Ricigliano concluded in a report for a copyright legal row that it was “objectively unlikely” that any similarities between the 2017 track and the song Oh Why by Sami Chokri “result from copying”.

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But Christian Siddell, another musicologist, reported that he found melodic similarities were “so numerous and striking that the possibility of independent creation is… highly improbable”.

Song writer John “Johnny” McDaid, co-writer of Shape of You (Photo: PA)Song writer John “Johnny” McDaid, co-writer of Shape of You (Photo: PA)
Song writer John “Johnny” McDaid, co-writer of Shape of You (Photo: PA)

Both musicology experts gave evidence on their analysis of the songs at an ongoing trial in London on Wednesday (16 March).

In a joint written statement, they agreed that “when heard in the context of their respective works, the words ‘Oh why’ and ‘Oh I’ may be phonetically indistinguishable from each other to the casual listener”.

They also agreed that neither of them had found “the same combination of either the ‘Oh Why’ phrase – combined phonetic sound plus pitch and rhythm – nor the ‘Oh I’ phrase – combined phonetic sound plus pitch and rhythm – in any other compositions”.

Has Ed Sheeran faced similar lawsuits before?

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In 2017, Sheeran was taken to court by songwriters Thomas Leonard and Martin Harrington, who claimed that Sheeran’s song Photograph was a “note-for-note” copy of their song Amazing, which was released by X-Factor winner Matt Cardle in 2012.

Leonard and Harrington accused Sheeran of “unabashedly taking credit” for their work, and said that the chorus of Photograph and Amazing shared 39 identical notes - and that the similarities were “instantly recognisable to the ordinary observer”.

The singer has faced similar claims in the past (Photo: PA)The singer has faced similar claims in the past (Photo: PA)
The singer has faced similar claims in the past (Photo: PA)

In their complaint, Leonard and Harrington said: “This copying is, in many instances, note-for-note coping, [and] makes up nearly one half of Photograph.”

While Sheeran’s lawyers said that the lawsuit made “scandalous allegations” against the singer, an undisclosed agreement was eventually reached out of court.

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He has also been sued twice for allegedly copying parts of Marvin Gaye’s song Let’s Get It On with his number one hit Thinking Out Loud, once by the family of Ed Townsend who co-wrote Let’s Get It On, and once by a company called Structured Asset Sales, which owns part of the copyright to the song.

Sheeran’s team also gave credit to the writers behind the 90s hit No Scrubs by TLC after comparisons were made between the song and Shape of You.

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