The downside to selling trillions of records in your first week is that people pay attention. A lot of people. And often these people will point out that certain parts of songs sound an awful lot like other songs, other previously-copyrighted works.
Soon this controversy gets back to the copyright holders, songwriters or whoever, who then decide how to proceed. This process can be stretched out in court for years, as we witnessed with the messy, grubby ‘Blurred Lines’ case, or it can be settled quietly with some sneaky credit reshuffling.
In the case of ‘Shape Of You’, Sheeran and his lawyers have opted for the latter, copping to the similarities between the monster hit and another monster hit from 1999, ‘No Scrubs’ by TLC.
The melody is strikingly similar (read: the same) and has resulted in the official publishing details for the song — which originally credited Sheeran and co-writers Johnny McDaid, and Steve Mac — being modified to include the writers of No Scrubs: Kandi Burruss, Tameka Cottle, and Kevin Briggs.
This is similar to an amendment made to the songwriting credits of another recent worldwide hit from a sensitive young British songwriter.
Sam Smith’s Grammy-winning single ‘Stay With Me’ was originally credited to Smith and two co-writers, but it quickly received comparisons to Tom Petty’s 1989 single ‘I Won’t Back Down’ – mostly because it totally ripped off Tom Petty’s 1989 single ‘I Won’t Back Down’. Smith claimed it was a co-incidence, and Petty tended to agree, taking a mystic stance while not denying the similarities.
“All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen”, Petty told Rolling Stone at the time, not at all living up to his surname. “Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by. Sam’s people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement.”
In this case, Petty and co-writer Jeff Lynne were quietly added to the songwriting credits, and scored the resulting financial windfall that comes from a four-million selling hit single. It certainly seems to be a more pleasing outcome for all parties than the ‘Blurred Lines’ drama, which saw Robin Thicke’s personal struggles dragged through the court, musicologists being examined like forensics scientists, and a song’s “vibe” being discussed in legal terms.
That case was touted as the start of a terrible litigious trend: a world where artists would be attacked by copyright piranhas for using melodic and chordal changes as old as time. Hopefully it acted as the opposite: a public cautionary tale of what happens when such legal and artistic lines are blurred beyond recognition.
As they say: amateurs borrow, geniuses steal – and nobody reads the writing credits.