By Tom Pilgrim, PA
Ed Sheeran said he is trying to “clear my name” and denied using litigation to “intimidate” other songwriters into abandoning a copyright dispute over his song Shape Of You.
The star insisted he is “a songwriter, I write songs, that’s it,” as he faced questions over the creation of the 2017 hit at a High Court hearing in London on Tuesday.
Sheeran and two of his Shape Of You co-authors, Steven McCutcheon and John McDaid, are involved in a legal row with two songwriters, Sami Chokri and Ross O’Donoghue, who claim the song rips off parts of their 2015 track Oh Why – something they deny.
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, Mr Chokri and Mr O’Donoghue issued their own claim for “copyright infringement, damages and an account of profits in relation to the alleged infringement”.
During a second day of facing cross-examination in the trial, Sheeran said: “These proceedings are here so I can clear my name.
“We have an action against us which me, Johnny and Steve all say is false.”
Andrew Sutcliffe QC, for Mr Chokri and Mr O’Donoghue, explained to Sheeran what a “strategic lawsuit against public participation” is.
Known as a Slapp, he described it as “a lawsuit intended to intimidate opponents by burdening them with the cost of a legal defence until they abandoned their claim”.
“That was your strategy, wasn’t it?” Mr Sutcliffe asked the singer.
“No,” Sheeran replied, adding: “I wanted to prove that I was right.”
Mr Chokri and Mr O’Donoghue allege Shape Of You infringes “particular lines and phrases” of their song, but Sheeran told the court: “I haven’t copied Oh Why.”
In the witness stand, 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.
He repeatedly told the court that he, Mr McDaid and Mr McCutcheon wrote Shape Of You together.
Mr Chokri, a grime artist who performs under the name Sami Switch, and Mr 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.
The hooks were described by Sheeran as using the “minor pentatonic scale with two vowels” when asked if they were similar.
Mr Sutcliffe claimed Sheeran’s co-authors could not recall “how this Oh I section came into being”, suggesting it was because Sheeran “originated it”.
“No,” Sheeran said, adding: “I would say the melody and all of it was all of us three in a circle, bouncing back and forth. That was how it originated.”
The singer told the court he has written thousands of songs since he was 13, and admitted sometimes forgetting what he has composed.
Mr Sutcliffe earlier suggested that Sheeran was “an obsessive music squirrel” who “consumed music voraciously in 2015 and 2016”.
The singer previously denied he was “talent spotting” and “plugged in” to the UK music scene in 2015, when Mr Chokri was making a return after a two-year absence.
Mr Sutcliffe suggested there was “no way” Sheeran could remember “every song that you’ve ever listened to” and asked if he could exclude the possibility he heard Oh Why and “forgot about it”.
“I can and that’s why we’re here,” Sheeran replied.
Mr Sutcliffe accused the singer of pursuing the case in a way that was “demonstrably unfair” to Mr Chokri and Mr O’Donoghue.
He claimed Sheeran’s lawyers brought legal proceedings because PRS for music – the industry body that collects and distributes royalties – had “frozen” payments for UK broadcast and performance income from Shape Of You, something he alleged amounted to less than 10% of the song’s total revenues.
Sheeran told the court that “hand on heart, I have no idea how any of my songs do”, adding: “My songs go out and get released, I’ve no idea how much they earn”.
Earlier on Tuesday, the court was accidentally played a clip of unreleased material by Sheeran from Mr McCutcheon’s computer when the singer was supposed to be hearing initial recordings from the creation of Shape Of You.
The court also heard that, during the creation of Shape Of You, Sheeran decided singing an early version of a section using the word “heya” was too “close to the bone” because it sounded similar to a song called No Diggity by the band Blackstreet.
A reference to TLC song No Scrubs was also changed, with Sheeran explaining in his written evidence that “because we had already gone half-way down the road of clearing the use, we ended up having to give the rights holders in No Scrubs a percentage of Shape Of You anyway”.
The trial before Mr Justice Zacaroli, which is expected to last three weeks, continues on Wednesday.