It's big day for Ed Sheeran. In a ruling issued on Wednesday, a British court dismissed accusations that the pop star engaged in copyright infringement with his hit "Shape of You." Songwriters Ross Donoghue and Sami Chokri (who performs as Sami Switch) had argued Sheeran copied parts of their 2015 track "Oh Why," but the judge found these claims to be unsupported, noting comparable elements in a wide range of popular music and accepting Sheeran's contention that he had not heard "Oh Why" when he and his producers were writing "Shape of You."
You don't have to be a Sheeran fan to see the ruling as good news. At least since 2015, when a U.S. court found Robin Thicke plagiarized Marvin Gaye's song "Got to Give It Up," songwriters, performers, and record labels have become more vigilant about possible copyright infringement. The result, they claim, is less experimentation and more preemptive vetting by experts trained to detect even unintentional similarities to other material.
The case for rigorous policing is that it protects creators from being ripped off by more prominent artists. That's true in some cases. But claims of intellectual property are complicated by the copyright terms that substantially exceed the life of the original authors. It makes sense to ensure that this year's hit can't be imitated next year. The benefits of protecting that material decades later are less clear. After all, it's not Gaye himself making claims against Thicke — or Sheeran, in another major suit. It's his estate, which is still collecting royalties nearly forty years after the singer's death in 1984.
The danger of excessive copyright enforcement is heightened when major corporations buy up artists' catalogs. In these cases — including the work of David Bowie and Bruce Springsteen — it's not artists or even their heirs but shareholders who have an interest in shutting down any hint of plagiarism. This isn't a protection for creativity; it's rent-seeking.
Copyright lawsuits aren't the sole reason the music industry seems so stagnant. As the critic Ted Gioia pointed out in an essay earlier this year, a range of incentives favor the endless marketing of old stars and old hits over taking risks with new artists, material, or styles. But the Sheeran judgment might help relieve some of the legal anxieties that threaten the artistic process. Now let's see what happens to Dua Lipa and Taylor Swift.