Ed Sheeran has denied being an artist who “alters” words and music belonging to others to “pass as original”, during a High Court battle over the copyright of his 2017 hit Shape Of You.
The singer also refuted an allegation that he “borrows” ideas from unknown songwriters without acknowledgement, as he gave evidence at a hearing in London on Monday.
Mr Sheeran and two of his Shape Of You co-authors are involved in a legal dispute with two songwriters, Sami Chokri and Ross O’Donoghue, who allege the song rips off parts of their 2015 track Oh Why – something they deny.
During cross examination by Andrew Sutcliffe QC, representing Mr Chokri and Mr O’Donoghue, Mr Sheeran was repeatedly questioned about his songwriting process and whether he was previously aware of Mr Chokri’s work.
On Friday, the first day of what is expected to be a three-week trial, Mr Sutcliffe alleged Mr Sheeran “borrows ideas and throws them into his songs, sometimes he will acknowledge it but sometimes he won’t”.
The barrister also claimed Mr Sheeran’s acknowledgment depended on how famous the other artist was, adding that Mr Chokri and Mr O’Donoghue “are not Shaggy, Coldplay, Rihanna or Jay-Z, if they were they would have been treated in a very different way”.
But on Monday, Mr Sheeran’s lawyer, Ian Mill QC, asked him if he accepted that he behaved in this way.
Mr Sheeran, who appeared in the witness box wearing a dark suit and tie, replied “no”, before adding: “The examples he has been using are obviously famous artists, two of them are people I’ve made songs with.”
He continued 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.
Mr Sheeran also 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.
Mr Sutcliffe also put it to the songwriter on Monday that “you alter words and music which belong to others just enough to think they will pass as original”.
“No,” Mr Sheeran replied.
Mr Sheeran also denied that he was aware of Mr Chokri, a grime artist who performed under the name Sami Switch, earlier in his career.
Mr Sutcliffe suggested that he must have been aware of Mr Chokri because they appeared on YouTube channel SBTV at about the same time, they shared friends, Mr Chokri had sent messages to him on Twitter and Mr Sheeran had allegedly shouted his name at a performance.
“This is all stuff you’re saying, this isn’t stuff that’s true,” Mr Sheeran said.
Mr Sutcliffe asked him: “You’re saying you definitely weren’t aware of him, rather than you’ve forgot that you’re aware of him?”
“Yes,” Mr Sheeran said.
Mr Sheeran also denied that 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.
He told the court his “priority” had been British artist Jamie Lawson, who had signed Mr Sheeran’s Gingerbread Man record label.
He also denied Mr Sutcliffe’s suggestion there was a “good chance” he had seen various song and video releases and a tweet featuring Sami Switch in 2015 and 2016.
Mr Sheeran told the court he quit social media at the end of 2015 and the following year was using a “flip phone from Tesco”.
He also did not agree it was possible that the late founder of SBTV YouTube channel, Jamal Edwards, shared with him Mr Chokri’s song Oh Why.
Mr Sheeran denied Mr Edwards, who died last month and was described in court as his “best friend”, shared music with him in 2015 and 2016, explaining that he had only recently done so.
Mr Sutcliffe said: “It’s just not believable, Mr Sheeran. This is your best friend who was very much at the center of the UK scene. You’re saying he didn’t start to share music with you until last year?”
“Yes, that’s what I’m saying,” Mr Sheeran replied, adding that they would “talk about football, talk about his mum, talk about theatre”.
“I suggest it’s entirely possible that Jamal Edwards shared Oh Why with you, isn’t it?” Mr Sutcliffe said.
“No,” Mr Sheeran replied.
In his written witness statements, Mr Sheeran said he did not recall meeting Mr Chokri, despite Mr Chokri’s claim that they met at a party in a Nando’s restaurant in central London.
Elsewhere he wrote that he “always tried to be completely fair in crediting anyone who makes any contribution to any song I write”, adding that he had 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”.
Mr Sheeran later described his songs as “excitement bottles” in written evidence, claiming there was “no premediated thought process” and that “almost all of my songs are written in under two hours”.
Mr Chokri and Mr O’Donoghue allege that Shape Of You infringes “particular lines and phrases” of their song Oh Why.
But Mr Sheeran’s lawyers have 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.
Mr Sheeran and his co-authors launched legal proceedings in May 2018, 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”.
The trial before Mr Justice Zacaroli continues, with Mr Sheeran expected to continue giving evidence on Tuesday.
George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.