Ed Sheeran Wins ‘Thinking Out Loud’ Copyright Trial
Ed Sheeran has been found not liable in the copyright lawsuit trial that accused his song “Thinking Out Loud” of infringing on Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On.”
After three hours of deliberations that followed a two-week trial in New York, the jury announced their verdict Thursday in favor of Sheeran, finding that he independently created his 2014 single and did not copy Gaye’s hit.
While Sheeran was pleased with the outcome (he won’t have to retire now, as he threatened during his testimony), he said in a post-trial statement that he “unbelievably frustrated that baseless claims like this are allowed to go to court at all. “It’s simply wrong. By stopping this practice we can also properly support genuine music copyright claims so that legitimate claims are rightly heard and resolved,” he added, calling the lawsuit against him a “bogus claim.”
“These chords are common building blocks which were used to create music long before ‘Let’s Get It On’ was written, and will be used to make music long after we’re gone,” Sheeran added in his statement. “They are in a songwriter’s alphabet, our toolkit, and should be there for all of us to use. No one owns them or the way they are played, in the same way nobody owns the color blue.”
The verdict comes six years after the heirs of Ed Townsend — who co-wrote the 1973 song with Gaye — filed a lawsuit against Sheeran, alleging that it had “striking similarities” that violate the copyright. The Gaye family was not involved in the lawsuit against Sheeran, though their successful lawsuit against Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” — which made similar arguments about authorship — loomed heavily over the proceedings. In that trial, a jury awarded Gaye’s heirs $7.4 million at trial; it was later trimmed to $5.3 million by the judge.
“The Defendants copied the ‘heart’ of ‘Let’s’ and repeated it continuously throughout ‘Thinking,’” according to the 2016 lawsuit. “The melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic compositions of ‘Thinking’ are substantially and/or strikingly similar to the drum composition of ‘Let’s.’” (The Townsend estate’s lawsuit was ultimately postponed in 2019 by the judge because he wanted to wait for the resolution of a similar case against Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”)
During the trial, with Sheeran on the witness stand, Townsend estate lawyer Ben Crump was questioned about “smoking gun” evidence: Concert footage where Sheeran merged the two songs during a show; earlier that day, Crump described the mashup as a “confession.”
“If I’d done what you’re accusing me of doing, I’d be an idiot to stand on stage in front of 20,000 people [and do that],” Sheeran said Tuesday in response to the allegations. “It is my belief that most pop songs are built on building blocks that have been freely available for 100s of years.”
A musicologist hired by Townsend’s legal team later testified that, in his opinion, the two songs “sound very, very similar.” Dr. Alexander Stewart claimed that the two songs shared a 70-percent “musical value,” comparing them with computer software.
Sheeran subsequently took the stand on his own behalf to serenade the courtroom with a strummed rendition of “Thinking Out Loud,” singing what he said were the tune’s original lyrics: “I’m singing out now.” He told the jury that he’d written the tune, in Feb. 2014, after his grandfather died and that the lyrics was a bit like “I’m thinking out loud.” When he herd his cowriter, Amy Wadge, playing the chords in another room, the song clicked for him.
On another day, Sheeran pulled out his guitar again, mashing up tunes by Nina Simone, Stevie Wonder, Bill Withers, Blackstreet, and Van Morrison with “Thinking Out Loud.” The producers he was working with, he claimed, called the track the “Van Morrison tune” due to a similarity in Sheeran and the Belfast Cowboy’s voices.
Sheeran, who earlier this year won a plagiarism lawsuit in the U.K. over his hit “Shape of You,” last settled a lawsuit over another one of his hits, “Photograph,” for $20 million in 2017.
In late 2022, Sheeran’s lawyers attempted to have the Townsend heirs’ lawsuit dismissed, arguing that the song elements in question were too common to be protected by copyright and that the lawsuit was “baseless,” a sentiment echoing Sheeran’s own take when the lawsuit was initially filed.
“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, even if there is no basis for the claim,” Sheeran said in a video posted on Twitter in 2017. “It’s really damaging to the songwriting industry.”