Ed Sheeran Copyright Trial: Here's What You Need to Know

Fatih Aktas | Anadolu Agency | Getty Images
  • Ed Sheeran was in Manhattan federal court this week for a copyright infringement trial involving his 2014 hit "Thinking Out Loud."
  • The heirs of late Ed Townsend – who co-wrote Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get it On" – say Sheeran's song copies the 1973 classic.
  • The trial is expected to last up to two weeks and will be decided by a jury.

Musician Ed Sheeran was in court this week to deny claims that his 2014 song "Thinking Out Loud" is a copy of Marvin Gaye's 1973 classic "Let's Get it On."

The high-profile copyright case was brought by the heirs of Ed Townsend, who co-wrote "Let's Get It On" with Gaye. The plaintiffs first filed the civil suit in 2017 and are being represented by a legal team including civil rights attorney Benjamin Crump.

Townsend's daughter Kathryn Townsend Griffin, sister Helen McDonald and the estate of his former wife, Cherrigale Townsend are the listed as plaintiffs in the case. Gaye died in 1984 and Townsend died in 2003.

Sheeran, 32, took the stand Tuesday during opening arguments in federal court in Manhattan. The trial is expected to last up to two weeks.

The defense, which did not cross examine Sheeran, said he'll be back on the stand once more during the trial.

"Smoking gun"

Townsend's estate alleges that Sheeran, Warner Music Group and Sony Music Publishing borrowed from the soul classic "Let's Get it On" in the creation of "Thinking Out Loud," violating federal copyright law.

"The defendants copied the heart of 'Let's' and repeated it continuously throughout 'Thinking,'" attorneys for the Townsend heirs wrote in their complaint. "The melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic compositions in 'Thinking' are not the product of independent creation."

To make the plaintiffs' argument, Crump pointed to a 2014 stage performance in which Sheeran sang a live mash-up of the two songs. Crump told jurors the moment, captured on video, amounted to a confession.

"We have a smoking gun," Crump said of the mash-up video.

Crump added that Sheeran "recognized the magic" of Gaye's song and claimed that he had "decided to capture a bit of that magic for his own benefit."

Sheeran on stand

Sheeran was called to the stand Tuesday and defended his art before the court, telling jurors that he composed "Thinking Out Loud" independently with British songwriter Amy Wadge, who was not named in the lawsuit.

Sheeran also said the 2014 concert mash-up only happened because most pop songs use a handful of similar chords.

"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," the musician said, adding that he has done similar mash-ups with other pop songs. "It is my belief that most pop songs are built on building blocks that have been freely available for hundreds of years."

Stephanie Keith | Bloomberg | Getty Images
Musician Ed Sheeran arrives at federal court in New York, US, on Tuesday, April 25, 2023. Sheeran will have to convince a New York federal jury that his 2014 hit song "Thinking Out Loud" didn't copy from Marvin Gaye's classic soul groove "Let's Get It On," the latest trial in an increasingly litigious music industry. Photographer: Stephanie Keith/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This isn't the first time Sheeran has found himself in the crosshairs of a copyright infringement suit.

Last April, Sheeran took the stand involving another one of his hits, 2017's "Shape of You". A London judge in that case ruled in favor of Sheeran and awarded him more than $1.1 million in legal fees.  

"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.

Released in September 2014, Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud" became a critical and commercial success, winning the musician song of the year and best pop solo performance at the 58th Grammy Awards.

He said he came up with the song after the death of a grandfather. The song is about finding love at an old age, he told the court Tuesday.

What's next

Sheeran could testify once more during the trial.

If the jury finds the British singer-songwriter liable for copyright infringement, the trial will enter a second phase to determine how much he will pay in damages.

Wadge, the "Thinking Out Loud" co-writer, is also planning to take the stand during trial.

"If you remember nothing else about this trial, about this case, it is about giving credit where credit is due," Crump told jurors during his opening statement Tuesday.

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