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Ed Sheeran’s song-theft accuser takes to the stand

By | Published on Tuesday 15 March 2022

Ed Sheeran

The artist who accuses Ed Sheeran of ripping off his track ‘Oh Why’ when writing ‘Shape Of You’ took to the witness stand yesterday as the big song-theft legal battle in the London high court continues.

Sami Chokri and Ross O’Donoghue argue that Sheeran likely got hold of a copy of their song ‘Oh Why’ from friends they have in common, and then consciously or subconsciously lifted elements of that track when writing ‘Shape Of You’. But Sheeran and his co-writers on the 2017 hit deny ever having heard ‘Oh Why’ before their songwriting sessions in late 2016, and argue that the elements shared by the two songs are commonplace in pop music.

In a written statement and during his testimony in court yesterday, Chokri talked about how he actively tried to get a copy of his 2015 song to Sheeran.

He said he was inspired by Sheeran’s success and recognised that if he could get an endorsement from the star that would be “a significant boost”. To that end, he added, he sent copies of his EP to several people that he knew had connections to Sheeran, including producer Adam Coltman, musician Jake Roche and SBTV’s Jamal Edwards.

Then recalling the first time he heard ‘Shape Of You’, Chokri said: “I was a passenger in my girlfriend’s car and ‘Shape Of You’ came on the radio. She and I were both shocked to hear the similarities”. He later posted to Facebook the statement “anyone else think Ed Sheeran’s new song ‘Shape Of You’ chorus sounds familiar LOL?” That post got lots of responses, he added, including from Edwards who, in a comment subsequently deleted, used the ‘shifty eyes’ emoji.

“I thought maybe [Jamal] had played a part in showing [my song] to Ed”, Chokri told the court, according to the BBC. Sheeran has denied getting a copy of ‘Oh Why’ via Edwards. And prior to his death last month, the SBTV founder confirmed that was the case in a written statement that said: “Even if I was sent a copy, I did not share it with Ed”. Asked about that in court, Chokri went on: “I respect what Jamal says, but I also believe that Jamal would share music with Ed Sheeran”.

And whether or not it was actually Edwards who passed on a copy of ‘Oh Why’ to Sheeran, Chokri added: “I believe Ed Sheeran heard it, that’s my truth”. Asked if that meant Sheeran had lied under oath in court last week, the musician said: “I’m not sure if he lied or he doesn’t remember”.

Elsewhere, Chokri talked about feeling “belittled” by Sheeran’s team and legal advisors ever since he first tried to make contact about the similarities between ‘Oh Why’ and ‘Shape Of You’.

Admitting that the court case, and preparations for it, had been “the most horrible weeks of my life”, he talked a little more about his experience of dealing with the Sheeran side. “All I heard and read was emails belittling me and my questions”, he said. “All I wanted to do was ask for an explanation. If I’d had one, we wouldn’t have had to go through with this rubbish”.

Talking of belittling artists, Sheeran’s legal rep in court, Ian Mill, asked why Chokri hadn’t registered his song with collecting society PRS until 2017, adding “the fact you weren’t registered is indicative of the fact you weren’t earning money”.

Which may be true, of course, though plenty of grassroots artists operate outside the collective licensing system, prioritising getting their music onto streaming services via a DIY distributor, and often unaware additional song royalties are due through PRS.

Mill then argued that Chokri only registered his song with the collecting society in 2017 in order to pursue his claim against Sheeran et al. It was when the dispute in relation to ‘Shape Of You was logged within the PRS ecosystem – and payments of royalties generated by the song were therefore put on hold – that Sheeran and his co-writers went legal.

Chokri admitted that he had been advised that logging his song with PRS was the “next step” in pursuing a copyright claim, but said he didn’t know that would result in payments being halted. And anyway, even if he only logged ‘Oh Why’ with PRS in order to pursue a claim against ‘Shape Of You’, that doesn’t really have any bearing on the case.

In slightly more reasonable questioning, Mill also honed in on the fact that most songs are influenced by earlier songs, and such influence doesn’t usually constitute infringement. In fact, he suggested, ‘Oh Why’ was likely influenced by the folk song ‘The Wayfaring Stranger’ and, specifically, Sheeran’s cover of it.

But, according to ITV News, Chokri countered that – although he was a fan of Sheeran’s music in general and his version of that song in particular – neither were in his mind when writing ‘Oh Why’.

He’d written his song during a “difficult period” in his life, and creating the track had proven “therapeutic”, it being “a perfect way to kind of scream at the world how I felt at that time”. He then said of the day he wrote ‘Oh Why’: “That was a life-changing day for me. I wasn’t thinking about Ed Sheeran, I was thinking about staying alive”.

Expanding on his theme of Chokri also borrowing from other people’s art, Mill then argued that – beyond any influence of ‘The Wayfaring Stranger’ – the lyrics of ‘Oh Why’ also heavily reference a speech from Charlie Chaplin’s film ‘The Great Dictator’, and no permission was sought to do so. Plus, the video for ‘Oh Why’ included uncleared news footage from broadcasters including CNN, BBC and Sky News.

Again none of which is really relevant to the case, except – I guess – to portray Chokri as a hypocrite. Although it mainly backed up the lesser known musician’s claim that Sheeran’s team has sought to “belittle” him throughout this entire dispute, which – it has to be said – doesn’t reflect particularly well on that team, however strong or weak Chokri’s actual song theft allegation may or may not be.

The case continues.