Ed Sheeran could soon be an expert on copyright law – the British singer is certainly gaining the courtroom experience for it.
Less than a month after winning a copyright infringement case over his biggest hit, Shape of You, Sheeran took the stand in a New York courtroom to defend against claims that his 2014 track Thinking Out Loud copied Marvin Gaye’s 1973 song Let’s Get It On.
The case was brought by the heirs of Ed Townsend, a musician known for his 1958 song For Your Love. Townsend co-wrote Let’s Get It On with Gaye.
Though Townsend passed away in 2003, members of his family and heirs to part of his estate, including his sister and daughter, brought the suit against Sheeran, originally filing it in 2016.
Their lawsuit alleged that Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud “copied the heart” of Let’s Get It On and “repeated it continuously throughout… The melodic, harmonic and rhythmic compositions of [Thinking Out Loud] are substantially and/or strikingly similar to the drum composition of [Let’s Get It On].”
In court Tuesday, Sheeran defended himself against the allegations.
A lawyer for Townsend’s family, Ben Crump, played a video for jurors showing Sheeran performing Thinking Out Loud in a live show, and segueing into lyrics from Let’s Get It On.
Crump called this a “smoking gun” and said Sheeran’s filmed performance was tantamount to “a confession,” the Associated Press reported.
Later, under questioning from attorney Keisha Rice, also representing Townsend’s family members, Sheeran said: “If I had done what you’re accusing me of doing [i.e. copying elements of Let’s Get It On for Thinking Out Loud, then switching between both songs while playing live], I’d be quite an idiot to stand on a stage in front of 20,000 people and do that.”
At times, the exchange between Sheeran and Rice turned testy. At one point, Rice asked Sheeran if his song Take It Back contained the words “plagiarism is hidden.”
“Those are my lyrics, yep,” Sheeran responded. “Can I give some context to them?”
Rice replied that if she wanted context, she would ask for it.
“I feel like you don’t want me to answer because you know that what I’m going to say is actually going to make quite a lot of sense,” Sheeran said, as quoted by BBC News.
Referencing the live video, Sheeran argued that it’s “quite simple to weave in and out of songs” that are in the same key.
“Most pop songs can fit over most pop songs … You could go from Let it Be to No Woman, No Cry and switch back,” The Guardian quoted Sheeran as saying, in reference to classic songs by the Beatles and Bob Marley.
Sheeran’s lawyers have argued that Thinking Out Loud and Let’s Get It On share “versions of a similar and unprotectable chord progression that was freely available to all songwriters,” according to an earlier report from the Associated Press.
“Most pop songs can fit over most pop songs … You could go from Let it Be to No Woman, No Cry and switch back.”
“It is such a basic chord progression that it is taught in elementary guitar method books, one of which ironically opines that [Let’s Get It On] did not infringe earlier songs using the same progression since it is so ‘common’,” Sheeran’s attorneys wrote in a defense filing, as quoted by Billboard.
“According a monopoly over the use of a common chord progression to any author would undermine the central aim of copyright law … and unduly chill future expression.”
Townsend’s daughter, Kathryn Griffin-Townsend, testified in court that she admired Sheeran, calling him “a great artist with a great future,” but brought the case against reluctantly in order to protect her father’s legacy, BBC News reported.
The Townsend family’s lawsuit isn’t the only one Sheeran is facing over Thinking Out Loud.
Another one was brought by investment banker and musician David Pullman and Structured Asset Sales (SAS), which bought a portion of Ed Townsend’s estate.
David Pullman is best known as the inventor of “Bowie bonds,” a type of asset-backed security that used royalties from music sales and (at the time) live performances by David Bowie as collateral.
Pullman and SAS’s case against Sheeran is currently on hold, according to The Guardian.
Sheeran has been accused of copyright infringement a number of times, both in and out of court.
In 2022, he won a UK court case in which musician Sami Chokri (aka Sami Switch) had argued that Sheeran’s Shape of You copied Chokri’s track Oh Why.
It has also been reported that Sheeran settled out of court over allegations that his hit Photograph copied Amazing, a track by X Factor winner Matt Cardle. The settlement reportedly cost some USD $5 million.
Sheeran’s current case, in the US District Court for the southern district of New York, is expected to last until next week.Music Business Worldwide