Ed Sheeran Sued: Is 'Photograph' an 'Amazing' Copyright Violation?

By Ephrat Livni, Esq. on June 16, 2016 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

Two American musicians are suing British pop singer Ed Sheeran for more than $20 million, claiming copyright violations. Martin Harrington and Thomas Leonard sued Sheeran in federal court in California, arguing that his hit song "Photograph" contains striking similarities to their 2009 song "Amazing."

Sheeran, 25, is one of Britain's top-selling pop artists, reports Reuters, and the song in question is off of his hit album "x" (which we are supposed to pronounce "multiply" and is one sign that Sheeran's not much of a writer). The song has reportedly sold over 3.5 million copies and his video for "Photograph" has 208 million views on YouTube. The plaintiffs are much less popular, yet their claims do have an interesting basis. Let's take a look at their case.

Amazingly Close?

Harrington and Leonard, the American plaintiffs, wrote "Amazing" in 2009. The songwriting duo from the States says that the later-released song, "Photograph" by Sheeran and friends, bears a striking resemblance to their own song. Their suit also names Snow Patrol's Johnny McDaid, credited as a co-writer of "Photograph," as well as units of Sony/ATV Music Publishing, Warner Music Group and its subsidiary, Atlantic Recording Corporation

The plaintiffs point to the chorus of "Photograph," as well as to 39 notes in the song that are identical to "Amazing" and the overall structure, melodic rhythms and harmonies, to support their copyright violation claims. Does that seem like straining? Maybe. But don't be so certain that this won't work for the less well-known musicians, or that the claim is totally random.

According to the plaintiffs, they wrote a version of "Amazing" that was adapted for British TV. It was sung by Matt Cardle on the UK's "The X Factor," a reality singing competition. Cardle won the competition in 2010 and his version of "Amazing" is on YouTube. It has about a million views, compared to Sheeran's 208 million for "Photograph."

Specializing in Similar Songs

It is especially interesting to note that the lawyer representing the songwriters here, Richard Busch, is the same one who represented Marvin Gaye's heirs in their lawsuit against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams over the hit Blurred Lines. That case ended with a $7.4 million payout to the Gaye family.

But it's not always easy to show that similarities between songs amount to a copyright violation. After all, there are only so many notes that can be written or sung and only so many tunes that will make everyone hum. Sometimes the really catchy stuff sounds fundamentally similar because it's good music with all the elements that work for people.

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