Ed Sheeran has won a High Court copyright battle over his 2017 hit Shape of You.
A judge ruled on Wednesday that the singer-songwriter had not plagiarised the 2015 song Oh Why by Sami Chokri.
Chokri, a grime artist who performs under the name Sami Switch, had claimed the “Oh I” hook in Sheeran’s track was “strikingly similar” to an “Oh why” refrain in his own track.
Sheeran said he did not remember hearing Oh Why before the legal case.
Shape of You was the UK’s best-selling song of 2017 in the UK and is Spotify’s most-streamed ever.
Judge Antony Zacaroli ruled that Sheeran had “neither deliberately nor subconsciously copied” Chokri’s song.
He acknowledged there were “similarities between the one-bar phrase” in Shape of You and Oh Why, but said “such similarities are only a starting point for a possible infringement” of copyright.
After studying the musical elements, he said there were “differences between the relevant parts” of the songs, which “provide compelling evidence that the ‘Oh I’ phrase” in Sheeran’s song “originated from sources other than Oh Why”.
He added that there was only a “speculative foundation” for the defence’s case that Sheeran had head Chokri’s song before writing Shape of You. “I find, as a matter of fact, that he had not heard it,” he said.
Sheeran wrote his chart-topping track with two collaborators, Snow Patrol’s John McDaid and producer Steven McCutcheon, who also denied having previously heard Oh Why.
Legal proceedings were launched in 2018 and resulted in an 11-day trial in London last month.
Giving evidence, Sheeran denied that he “borrows” ideas from unknown songwriters without acknowledgement, insisting he was always “completely fair” in crediting people who contribute to his work.
Andrew Sutcliffe QC, representing Chokri and O’Donoghue, labelled Sheeran a “magpie”, claiming he “habitually copies” other artists and that it was “extremely likely” he had previously heard Oh Why.
In closing arguments last month, Mr Sutcliffe said there was an “indisputable similarity between the works”. But Sheeran’s lawyer said the case against him was “so strained as to be logically unintelligible”.
Forensic musicologists were called by both sides to argue the case, giving contrasting views. One said the songs were “distinctly different” but the other argued they contained “significant similarities”.
Ian Mill QC, representing Sheeran, said the case had been “deeply traumatising” for the star and his collaborators, while Chokri described the High Court case “the worst few weeks of my life”.
Shape of You earns Sheeran, McDaid and McCutcheon about £5m a year, the court heard, despite almost 10% of the payments having being frozen due to the dispute.
This ruling will come as a huge relief to Ed Sheeran, who took the unusual step of pre-emptively suing Sami Chokri and his co-writer Ross O’Donoghue in 2018 in an attempt to clear his name.
He was stung by the accusation that he’d deliberately copied another writer’s work without giving them credit. On the witness stand, the star was often terse and abrupt as he explained how, in several other instances, he shared royalties with writers who inspired him. Even on Shape of You, he protested, some of the profits went to the writers of TLC’s No Scrubs.
He later sang Nina Simone’s Feeling Good and Blackstreet’s No Diggity on the stand in an attempt to prove the melody he was accused of stealing was commonplace in pop music.
Chokri was more emotional. He said he felt “robbed” by an artist he respected, and that he wished the trial had never come to court. However, he remained adamant that Sheeran had heard and copied his song.
In the end, the judge disagreed. In order for copyright infringement to be proved, Chokri needed to prove that Sheeran had listened to his song – otherwise the similarities would just be coincidence. But Mr Justice Zacaroli said Mr Chokri’s team had failed to establish that Oh Why had ever graced Sheeran’s speakers.
As a star who has faced his fair share of copyright claims, Sheeran will presumably hope this verdict makes future litigants think twice.