Pop star Ed Sheeran is famous for his candid songs of love and heartbreak while bridging the sounds of pop, soul, hip-hop, folk, dance, and rock. He’s been one of the world’s biggest music stars since his major label debut in 2011 entitled +. His second album, 2014’s X, further catapulted his career thanks partly to the song “Thinking Out Loud,” which won the Grammy for Song of the Year.
In Sheeran’s borrowing from different styles of music, the heirs of Ed Townsend, who co-wrote “Let’s Get It On” with Marvin Gaye, felt that Sheeran and co-writer Amy Wadge’s R&B-inspired slow jam believed it was a copyright infringement. They subsequently filed a claim in 2017.
We’ve previously discussed other infringement cases, including one the Gaye family filed against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for “Blurred Lines.” The family believed it infringed on Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up,” and the family won a $5.3 million lawsuit in the Central District of California.
While the plaintiff’s previous case was successful, the same could not be said for “Thinking Out Loud.” The lawsuit filed against Sheeran, his label (Warner Music Group) and publisher (Sony Music Publishing) claimed that the defendants owed them 22% of the profits for its use of “Let’s Get It On.” After a six-day trial and three-hour deliberation, a New York federal court jury cleared Sheeran.
The winning argument
The defense argued that the resemblances between the two songs were basic “building blocks” regularly employed by songwriters everywhere. They added that the rhythms and chord progressions were like “letters of the alphabet of music” used to create the song. So, rather than infringing upon original works of authorship fixed in a tangible form, the similarities between the songs were so general that there was no specific copyright infringement. The plaintiff acknowledged that the similarities were building blocks but was unsuccessful in arguing that the violation combined them in a similarly unique manner.
This lawsuit is Sheeran’s second win. He previously won a dispute in Britain where Sami Chokri claimed that Sheeran had used parts of his 2015 song for the hit “Shape of You.” A British judge ruled in favor of Sheeran in 2022.
An important case
The New York lawsuit will not be the last copyright infringement involving a pop song. Still, the arguments further define what parts of songwriting are protected. Future songwriters and their legal teams will look at this case (and others cited here) to determine if there is infringement. Songwriters with questions can discuss the details of their issue with someone who understands copyright laws.