Civil lawsuit brought by heirs of Marvin Gaye co-writer closely watched over implications for musicians’ creative freedom.
British pop star Ed Sheeran has expressed joy and relief after a United States jury found he did not plagiarize Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On when he wrote his mega-hit Thinking Out Loud, calling the ruling a win for creative freedom.
The English musician hugged his team inside a Manhattan court on Thursday after judges ruled he had “independently” created the 2014 Grammy award-winning song.
The closely-watched lawsuit was filed by heirs of Gaye co-writer Ed Townsend, who sued Sheeran for copyright infringement in 2017, claiming that Thinking Out Loud copied the “heart” of Gaye’s song including its melody, harmony and rhythm.
The heirs sought a share of the profits from Sheeran’s hit.
Outside the court, the singer-songwriter told reporters that he had been “devastating to be accused of stealing someone else’s song”, and he was “very happy” with the outcome.
“If the jury had decided this matter the other way, we might as well say goodbye to the creative freedom of songwriters,” Sheeran said.
Industry insiders were closely following the civil lawsuit amid concerns it could open the door to future litigation and hamper songwriters’ creativity.
It was Sheeran’s second copyright trial in a year. In April 2022, he won a case in London over his song Shape Of You, a massive hit in 2017, saying the lawsuit was emblematic of copyright litigation going too far.
There have been a handful of landmark music copyright cases in recent years.
One of the most notable was in 2015, when members of Gaye’s family successfully sued the performers Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams over similarities between their song Blurred Lines and Gaye’s Got to Give it Up.
The outcome surprised many in the industry, including legal experts, who considered many of the musical components cited as foundational and existing in the public domain.
In this month’s case, 32-year-old Sheeran was tested in court, guitar in hand, playing demos for the court to prove the 1-3-4-5 chord progression at issue was a common “building block” of pop music and could not be owned.
He said that his friend and collaborator Amy Wadge first started strumming the chords for the song during a visit to his home in England and that they collaborated on the lyrics.
A musicologist for the defense told the court the four-chord sequence had been used in a number of songs before Gaye’s hit came out in 1973.
These chords “are a songwriter’s ‘alphabet’, our tool kit,” Sheeran said on Thursday.
“No one owns them, or the way they are played, in the same way nobody owns the color blue.”
Joe Bennett, a forensic musicologist at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, told the AFP news agency he was “delighted” that “sanity prevailed” in the case.
“In music copyright litigation, cases involving one or two bars of music, the plaintiff’s allegation of plagiarism is almost always wrong,” he said. “Coincidental similarity happens all the time, particularly with chords and short melodic fragments.”
“Hopefully this sensible verdict will discourage other spurious complaints.”
Lawyers for Townsend’s heirs did not immediately respond to the verdict.
Sheeran faces two similar lawsuits in New York, brought by investment banker David Pullman’s Structured Asset Sales, which also owns copyright interests in the Gaye song.
Pullman said after the verdict that he and his lawyers had learned from the trial.
“We’ll know what to expect,” Pullman said.