September 28, 2023 Musicology No Comments

In his interview on the Howard Stern show, Ed Sheeran talked more about what he had said during the “Let’s Get It On” trial — that he might quit the music business altogether if the case was decided against him. I remember not taking it seriously at the time. But looking at this interview, and hearing Sheeran’s frustration, I think we really did come just one more silly verdict away from losing one of our biggest stars.

Imagine being South Korean superstar singer and actress, IU.

Rolling Stone included IU in its list of the “Greatest Singers Of All Time,” at #135 between Axl Rose (134) and Lauren Hill (135). She has been a star in South Korean popular music for a decade, she sells out stadiums, and acts in movies; she’s huge. (Sheeran didn’t make Rolling Stone’s list at all.) Here’s one of her biggest hits:

IU has also been making the news this year because of plagiarism claims — this song, “Good Day” included. IU has not actually been sued over any of them, but how about this? She was reported to the police back in May for plagiarism by an unknown individual. Weird. I don’t know a lot about the law in South Korea, but copyright infringement, in the United States at least, is a tort and not the sort of thing you run to the police department to file a complaint about. Moreover, plagiarism is distinct from infringement and isn’t even a tort but more of a “shame on you” wag-your-finger situation. But as the law firm representing the unknown accuser told local media according to Korea JoongAng Daily, “if the case is known to have habitually violated intellectual property rights, a third party is allowed to report the case.” (That still sounds wrong or at least odd to me.) But IU’s law firm issued a statement, according to The Korea Times, saying the police didn’t investigate because it didn’t constitute a criminal charge, which sounds right. There are various allusions from IU’s representatives about legal responses to “reckless accusations based on false information.” but otherwise, I can’t imagine more comes of that. Not formally at least. But what about hassles and stress? And especially what about perception?

The accusations alone cast a shadow, right?

Returning to Sheeran, here Musicologize explained eight ways to Sunday why he shouldn’t have been accused of copying or even necessarily of being influenced at all by “Let’s Get It On!” Yes, he was ultimately found not liable, but he had to defend it to trial, and it was an ongoing story for years. As Sheeran said to Stern, “There’s a stain on your reputation for the rest of your life.”

He’s right. I’ve looked at several cases in which Sheeran was accused, only once writing that Sheeran should settle (he did) which is not the same thing at all as my saying I necessarily believed Sheeran copied or was even aware of the song he was accused of copying. The musicology was compelling. It seemed to me a rational decision. But Sheeran has said he regrets settling it.

Sheeran writes accessible songs that lend themselves readily to observations of similarity. That’s why he’s in this

IU’s catalog shares those qualities, and it looks like she has a team of songwriters to thank. Perhaps that’s the price of fame — she gets reported to the police instead of the ones actually writing the songs certain people find derivative. She’s the name on the door. Hers is the besmirched reputation. Or mostly. What of the reputation of her songwriters? Most of the articles I’ve seen concentrate on the fact that she’s generally the wrong defendant because she wasn’t the songwriter. That doesn’t exonerate the composers.

What about substantial similarity? That’s the sine qua non. Sheeran’s case had none, but his reputation still suffers a bit simply from the accusation as he said to Howard. And IU stands accused of being a serial plagiarizer who some evidently think lifted at least six songs! And by the way, that seems to be all or nearly all in the court of public opinion. I don’t think she has actually been sued by rightsholders of the and of the songs her six supposedly sound too much like.

Maybe there’s a derivative song factory supplying the world with IU hits, and maybe not, and that brings us back to the distinction between plagiarism and infringment. Being a derivative song factory is more likely to get a public scolding than a judgment.

Substantial similarity will have to wait for another day. I’ve only heard one of the six song comparisons, and was not moved, but that still leaves five more.

Written by Brian McBrearty