"This is my last gig for probably 18 months," Ed Sheeran told an audience in Ipswich, England, on Tuesday night — his final show of a mammoth two-and-a-half year world tour.
He has definitely earned a break. The tour is officially the highest-grossing in musical history, and two-and-a-half years on the road is an epic undertaking for anyone, especially an artist who plays sold-out arenas and is an industry in his own right, news.com.au reports.
But this may be more than a simple break. Speculation is rife that Sheeran is stepping away from music — or at least touring — to focus on a number of legal woes, including two plagiarism legal claims that threaten to hit him on a financial and reputational level.
Last week, musician Sam Chokri claimed that Ed Sheeran's Shape Of You stole the chorus to his 2015 song Oh Why, which he apparently sent unsolicited to Sheeran's management.
Listen to Sam Chokri's Oh Why below and compare it to Ed Sheeran's Shape of You beneath it.
The case won't be heard until next year, but in the meantime, Sheeran has been legally blocked from receiving further royalties for the song, and has countersued Chokri.
The actual sonic resemblance between the two tunes is very slight, based on a two-note hook so standard and nondescript, it's closer to a rhythm part than a melody.
This isn't the only copyright claim Sheeran has had for the 2017 hit; after similarities were noted between the song and TLC's No Scrubs, he hastily added the band to the songwriting credits, pre-emptively avoiding any legal issues that threatened to arise.
That he borrowed unwittingly from No Scrubs has been acknowledged by Sheeran, but this latest case is rather more flimsy.
The similar sections of each song are compared in the following clip:
In two weeks, Sheeran will appear in court to face a more serious charges: that he stole elements of Marvin Gaye's Let's Get It On for 2014's Thinking Out Loud.
This case will prove more worrying to Sheeran, and with the case being filed three years ago, it has no doubt hung heavily on the singer's mind.
After all, an earlier 2015 plagiarism ruling, also featuring a Marvin Gaye song, is largely to blame for this recent landrush of similar plagiarism claims.
Compare Marvin Gaye's Let's Get it On and Ed Sheeran's Thinking Out Loud.
BLURRED LINES VS MARVIN GAYE
In August, 2013, Marvin Gaye's family filed a legal case that claimed that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams' smash hit Blurred Lines stole the "feel" of Gaye's Got To Give It Up.
This case was not rooted in any understanding of composition, instead being about the general mood and vibe of the two songs being similar. In other words, a trait that is littered throughout the history of popular music.
"Just simply go to the piano and play the two," Williams told ABC News. "One's minor and one's major. And not even in the same key."
Williams explained in court how he didn't actually steal a bass line, chords, or any lyrics, but the "vibe" was enough to see Gaye's estate awarded US$7.3 million (later reduced to US$3.2 million on appeal) plus 50 per cent of the songwriting royalties.
It set a dangerous legal precedent.
More than 200 artists, including Weezer, Linkin Park and even Hall and Oates, quickly signed an open letter that warned "all music shares inspiration from prior musical works, especially within a particular musical genre" and such a ruling acted in "eliminating any meaningful standard for drawing the line between permissible inspiration and unlawful copying" — an impediment to the creative process.
As we have seen recently, this has proven to be true, and legal cases and copyright claims are now being filed, based on timeless melodic intervals and chord progressions as old as sound itself.
Compare Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams' Blurred Lines with Marvin Gaye's Got To Give It Up.
SAM SMITH BACKS DOWN
Sam Smith's Stay With Me was a monster hit, winning two Grammys for Record Of The Year and Song Of The Year, and hitting the top ten in 12 countries. With such wide exposure, it was pointed out by more than a few people that the chorus bears more than a faint resemblance to Tom Petty's 1989 hit I Won't Back Down, which was itself a sizeable hit.
Smith claimed he'd never heard it — possible but unlikely — but Petty and co-writer Jeff Lynne of ELO were nonetheless quietly added to the songwriting credits. When it was reported that Petty threatened to sue, he was incensed.
"The word lawsuit was never even said and was never my intention," he wrote on his website. "And no more was to be said about it."
In reality, Petty's publishing company had noted the similarities, Smith's team agreed, and Petty and Lynne were awarded 12.5 per cent of the song's royalties.
Petty was gracious, explaining, "All my years of songwriting have shown me these things can happen. Most times you catch it before it gets out the studio door but in this case it got by.
"Sam's people were very understanding of our predicament and we easily came to an agreement."
Compare Sam Smith's Stay With Me with Tom Petty's I Won't Back Down.
KATY PERRY VS A CHRISTIAN RAPPER
As music distribution widens to the point where a song recorded at noon can be available globally through a number of streaming services by 3pm, legal cases are popping up in which previously unknown artists are able to reasonably prove that megastars are copying their work just by showing that because something's on the internet, any artist has access to it.
Late last month, a nine-person jury ruled that Katy Perry's 2014 hit Dark Horse plagiarised a song by a Christian hip hop artist named Flame. The song in question, 2008's Joyful Noise shares only a slightly similar sharp stabbing synth and a basic trap beat.
That's it. Perry's lawyer claimed "they're trying to own basic building blocks of music, the alphabet of music that should be available to everyone."
The court disagreed and Flame was awarded damages of US$2.78 million, plus a songwriting percentage.
Compare Katy Perry's Dark House and Flame's Joyful Noise.
LADY GAGA: A SUIT IS BORN
When Bradley Cooper dies, footage of his Shallow duet with Lady Gaga at the Oscars will be in all his "in memoriam" packages. The performance of the A Star Is Born song was one of those rare cultural moments that crossed all demographics and inspired furiously, if unfounded, "are they, aren't they?" gossip.
But it's a basic three-note melody in the song that unknown songwriter Steve Ronsen is banking on.
Despite having less than 300 SoundCloud plays at the time he filed the claim, Ronsen is hoping a jury will rule his own 2014 song Almost was ripped off in Shallow and that by virtue of it being uploaded to SoundCloud, any of the four songwriters, including heavyweights Mark Ronson and Lady Gaga, could have heard it and stolen it.
The only similarities between the two are a simple three-note section that features in countless classic tunes, including 1978 yacht rock classic Dust In The Wind by Kansas.
"It was brought to my attention by many people that the Shallow song sounds like mine," Ronsen wrote in a statement. "I admire Lady Gaga and I just want to get to the bottom of this. I wasn't going after her or anyone directly.
"A professional musicologist was consulted who agreed that the songs are similar. I was simply going about this how anyone else would investigate any possible wrongdoing towards them."
All care, no responsibility. Listen to the two songs below.
Compare Lady Gaga's A Star Is Born with Steve Ronsen's Almost.
FIVE SECONDS OF PLUNDER
Last April, Australia's big pop export 5 Seconds Of Summer released Youngblood, a stomping call-to-arms that borrowed stylistically from the likes of My Chemical Romance and Fall Out Boy, pop punk bands that appealed to the same teen fans 5SOS so successfully courted.
Saleswise, it was the most successful Australian single of last year, but a relatively unheard of Hungarian artist named Henderson David is claiming the opening verse melody from Youngblood is lifted from his song White Shadows and that he was the inspiration for the song.
The legal suit claims 5SOS had access to White Shadows because David performed it during a televised Eurovision audition, on Hungarian TV show that was later uploaded to YouTube. The actual musical similarities are a two-chord interval, a rather flimsy premise for such a case to hinge upon.
The claim says that 5SOS, "pressed for time, hungry for success, and desperate for a successful follow-up single, returned to their roots as an international YouTube cover band, cribbing Youngblood's earworm melodic verse directly from White Shadows".
Ouch! Listen to the two songs, below.
Compare 5 Seconds of Summer's Youngblood with Henderson David's White Shadows.
A PLAGUE OF PLAGIARISM SUITS
While walking away from the music industry might seem the best short-term solution for Sheeran, it certainly won't indemnify him from future cases based on his back catalogue, which includes hit singles written for and with the likes of One Direction, Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Hilary Duff.
Nor will the success of these recent legal cases dissuade unknown artists from filing similar claims, hoping to strike paydirt based on their prior use of conventional, simple melodies, "the alphabet of music" as Katy Perry's lawyer put it.
Or simple "coincidences", as they were previously known — before the lines became blurred.