Ed Sheeran wins Marvin Gaye copyright infringement trial

Credit: Edna Leshowitz/ZUMA/Alamy
New York, USA, April 25, 2023. Ed Sheeran, leaves Manhattan Federal Court after being sued by the estate of songwriter, Ed Townsend, for copyright infringement

Ed Sheeran has won a major legal copyright battle over his hit song, Thinking Out Loud.

After a two-week trial, the verdict was handed down on Thursday (May 4) by a Manhattan jury, ruling that Sheeran did not infringe on the copyright of the Marvin Gaye classic, Let’s Get It On.

ABC News reports that the jury reached its decision after around three hours of deliberations.

The decision marks the culmination of a years-long copyright battle between Sheeran and the heirs of Ed Townsend, a songwriter who co-wrote the 1973 track.

Townsend’s heirs, in a lawsuit initially filed in 2016, accused Sheeran of copying elements of the Marvin Gaye song in Thinking Out Loud, released in 2014.

The final testimony was heard in court on Wednesday (May 3), where US District Court Judge Louis Stanton told a Manhattan jury that “independent creation is a complete defense, no matter how similar that song is.”

Stanton’s statement follows a lengthy exchange of evidence where both sides debated on the likeness of another song to Thinking Out Loud — Georgy Girl, a 1967 smash by Australian folk-pop group, The Seekers, Insider reports.

Georgy Girl was brought in as evidence by Dr. Lawrence Ferrara, an expert musicologist called by Sheeran’s team, to show that Let’s Get It On and Thinking Out Loud use a common chord progression. 

Ferrara reportedly told jurors that Thinking Out Loud uses chords and rhythms that are commonplace “building blocks” of pop music.

Two other songs were cited by Ferrera to have shared the same chord progressions: The Contours’ 1962 hit, Do You Love Me (Now That I Can Dance), and a 1966 cover of The Temptations’ Since I Lost My Baby.

But the plaintiff’s lawyer, Attorney Patrick Frank, argued that these songs are “highly obscure” recordings and that Ferrara had to go to “extreme lengths” to find only four examples of the chord-rhythm pattern shared by the songs in the litigation.

“Doesn’t that suggest that Let’s Get It On is rather novel, or unique?” Frank asked Ferrara, according to Insider.

Townsend’s musicologist Dr. Alexander Stewart, told jurors that 70% of Thinking Out Loud is derived from Let’s Get It On, Insider reports.

On Tuesday, Sheeran blasted the Tonwsend team’s musicologist, saying Steward gave a “horrible depiction” of Thinking Out Loud.

“I know he’s wrong because I wrote it myself,” Fox Business quoted the singer as saying, adding: “If I can be honest, I think what he’s doing here is criminal.”

Meanwhile, Ed Sheeran’s lawyer, Attorney Ilene Farkas, said in her closing arguments on Wednesday that there is no “smoking gun” and “a confession” in a mashup that Sheeran did performing Thinking Out Loud, and segueing into lyrics from Let’s Get It On.

“Simply put: the plaintiff’s ‘smoking gun’ was shooting blanks,” Farkas was quoted by the New York Post as saying. “Their confession is nothing more, nothing less.”

Farkas was referencing the plaintiff’s lawyer, Attorney Ben Crump, who in his opening statement last week, said a video of Sheeran merging his song with Let’s Get It On at a 2014 concert equated to a “confession” that he had ripped off the Marvin Gaye song.

The ruling follows closed-door deliberations by the jury.

The verdict was expected to have major implications for the music industry, as it could set a precedent for future cases involving alleged copyright infringement.

“The world I want to live in is one where nobody sues anyone for a one- or two-bar melodic or harmonic similarity, because those similarities can so easily occur through coincidence,” forensic musicologist Joe Bennett, who is a professor at Massachusetts’ Berklee College of Music, recently told the AFP.

Sheeran had already threatened that he would quit making music if he was found guilty of infringing the Marvin Gaye song, he would quit making music.

“If that happens, I’m done — I’m stopping,” the four-time Grammy Award-winning musician was quoted by the New York Post as saying.

“I find it really insulting to work my whole life as a singer-songwriter and diminish it.”

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.

Last year, Sheeran won a copyright lawsuit in the UK over allegedly ripping off British artist Sami Chokri’s (aka Sami Switch)  song Oh Why in his Shape of You single.

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