Ed Sheeran learned his fate on May 4. After a week of legal back and forth with the lawyers for the Ed Townsend estate — the co-writer of Marvin Gaye’s 1973 classic, “Let’s Get It On” – alleging that Ed, 32, lifted “overt common elements” for his song, “Thinking Out Loud,” a decision was reached. Ed won in the copyright trial, as the verdict found he did not plagiarize the song.
The trial stems from Kathryn Townsend Griffin and other heirs of Ed Townsend — Marvin Gaye’s longtime producer who co-wrote “Let’s Get It On” – suing Ed in 2016, alleging that he “copied the heart of ‘Let’s’ and repeated it continuously throughout” his 2014 song, “Thinking Out Loud,” per Billboard. The songs have drawn comparisons to each other, with YouTube mashups weaving both tracks together. “The melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic compositions in ‘Thinking’ are not the product of independent creation,” the Townsend complaint read. Gaye’s heirs are not involved in the case.
Sheeran denied the allegations. His lawyers argued that the only real similarity between the two songs was the chord progression — I-iii-IV-V – and that it shouldn’t be grounds for a lawsuit. “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,'” Ed’s legal team wrote. “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.”
Sheeran’s label Atlantic Records and Sony/ATV Music Publishing are also named as defendants, per The Guardian. Ed’s co-writer on the song, Amy Wadge, wasn’t named in the lawsuit.
Ahead of the battle, Ed’s team won a significant battle: since Townsend’s heirs don’t own a copyright to the sound recording that Marvin Gaye recorded in March 1973, that version is inadmissible in court. The Townsend heirs only own the copyright to the “lead sheet” or “deposit copy,” a “bare-bones written version of the song that includes core notation but lacks many more detailed musical choices,” according to Billboard. Sheeran’s lawyers argue that two of the elements he allegedly infringed – the drum pattern and the bass line – aren’t in the deposit copy. Lawyers for the Townsend heirs say those elements are “implied.”
This isn’t Ed’s first rodeo. He was sued over “Shape of You” over allegations that he infringed on “Oh Why,” a 2015 song released by Sam Chokri (Sam Switch). A judge ruled in Ed’s favor, saying that he “neither deliberately nor subconsciously” lifted the chorus from the Sam Switch song.
“While we’re obviously happy with the result, I feel like claims like this are way too common now and have become a culture where a claim is made with the idea that a settlement will be cheaper than taking it to court,” said Ed after the court victory, per Billboard. “Even if there’s no base for the claim,” Sheeran said. “It’s really damaging to the songwriting industry.”
“There’s only so many notes and very few chords used in pop music. Coincidence is bound to happen if 60,000 songs are being released every day on Spotify,” Sheeran said at the time. “I just want to say: I’m not an entity, I’m not a corporation, I’m a human being and a father and a husband and a son. Lawsuits are not a pleasant experience, and I hope that this ruling means in the future baseless claims like this can be avoided.”