Justice Zacaroli, the judge overseeing the case, said “Mr. Sheeran neither deliberately nor subconsciously copied” the track “Oh Why,” by the British songwriter Sami Chokri, who records as Sami Switch.
There was “no more than speculative” evidence that Mr. Sheeran had even ever heard “Oh Why,” Justice Zacaroli added, dismissing Mr. Chokri’s claim of copyright infringement.
The plagiarism case was only the latest involving a prominent songwriter, but recording industry executives have been watching the case closely, because of its potential to bolster other claims. Mr. Sheeran still faces a pending trial in New York over another of his hits, “Thinking Out Loud,” which won song of the year at the 2016 Grammys; some of the owners of the rights to Marvin Gaye’s song “Let’s Get It On” accuse Mr. Sheeran of copying it.
At the heart of the case in London was a short passage in “Shape of You,” which topped charts worldwide and currently stands as the most streamed song on Spotify, with over three billion plays. In the track, Mr. Sheeran repeatedly sings the hook “Oh, I,” in a rising pentatonic melody, which Mr. Chokri claims was based on a section of his song “Oh Why,” which was released in 2015 but had comparatively little success.
Justice Zacaroli’s ruling came after an 11-day trial at the High Court in London in March, which was followed closely by the news media. Mr. Sheeran was in court throughout, and sang from the witness stand while giving evidence. At one point in the trial, Mr. Sheeran’s legal team accidentally played one of his unreleased songs, prompting Mr. Sheeran, shocked, to ask his lawyers, “How did you get that?” according to a BBC News report.
The case dates to May 2018, when Mr. Sheeran and his “Shape of You” co-authors, who include Johnny McDaid of the band Snow Patrol, asked the High Court in London to declare that they had not copied Mr. Chokri’s work. Their claim arose after Mr. Chokri and a co-author notified the Performing Rights Society, a British body that pays song royalties, that they should be credited as songwriters on “Shape of You.” The society then suspended all payments to Mr. Sheeran and his co-writers.
Soon after Mr. Sheeran took action, Mr. Chokri and his co-author introduced their own legal claim, accusing Mr. Sheeran of copyright infringement.
During the hearing, Mr. Chokri’s legal team tried to portray Mr. Sheeran as a habitual plagiarist. Andrew Sutcliffe, a lawyer for Mr. Chokri, said Mr. Sheeran was “undoubtedly very talented,” according to a report in The Times of London, but added: “He is also a magpie. He borrows ideas and throws them into his songs.” Mr. Sutcliffe claimed that Mr. Sheeran only sometimes credited the songwriters that he borrowed from.
After “Shape of You” was released, for example, the song’s credits were amended to add the three writers of TLC’s 1999 hit “No Scrubs,” whose melody, as fans noted at the time, bore a resemblance to parts of “Shape of You.”
A lawyer for Mr. Sheeran told the court that Mr. Chokri’s song had received only 12,914 plays on YouTube in the two years following its release, and had been played only twice on British radio, meaning few people had a chance to hear it.
But Mr. Chokri, during testimony, claimed that he knew Mr. Sheeran personally and that he had once met him at a branch of Nando’s, a chicken restaurant. Mr. Sheeran must have heard the song “through the many points of access that me and my team have shared,” Mr. Chokri said, according to The Times of London.
Mr. Sheeran, in his own evidence, denied having met Mr. Chokri or copying the song. At one point in the trial he sang parts of Nina Simone’s “Feeling Good” and Blackstreet’s “No Diggity” to demonstrate that the disputed melody in “Shape of You” was common in pop music.
In his ruling, Justice Zacaroli wrote that while Mr. Chokri’s shock at hearing “Shape of You” was understandable, given the similarities between the two songs, such coincidences “are not uncommon.” Even if Mr. Sheeran had been looking for inspiration for the track, he added, Mr. Chokri’s track was “far from an obvious source.”
Shortly after the ruling, Mr. Sheeran posted a clip to his Instagram account saying that as much as he was “happy with the result,” he felt “claims like this are way too common now.”
“There’s only so many notes and very few chords used in pop music,” Mr. Sheeran said, adding that, given that, “coincidences are bound to happen if 60,000 songs are released every day on Spotify.” The culture of lawsuits, Mr. Sheeran said, “really does have to end.”
Ben Sisario contributed reporting from New York.