The pop musician was accused of ripping off the 1973 classic "Thinking Out Loud" for his 2014 single "Thinking Out Loud." He referred to the chords used in both songs as "common building blocks."
A federal jury determined on Thursday that pop artist Ed Sheeran did not plagiarise Marvin Gaye's classic "Let's Get It On" for his 2014 smash "Thinking Out Loud," in the music industry's most high-profile copyright case in years.
Mr. Sheeran, one of music's biggest global hitmakers, testified for two weeks in a downtown Manhattan courtroom, frequently with a guitar in hand, that "Thinking Out Loud" was composed independently one evening with his friend and longtime collaborator Amy Wadge. He said the song was inspired by the decades-long love he and Ms. Wadge witnessed among their families' elders.
The two songs feature a similar syncopated chord pattern that the family of Gaye's co-writer Ed Townsend, who filed the lawsuit, referred to as the "heart" of "Let's Get It On." Mr Sheeran and his lawyers never denied that the chords in the two songs are similar, but instead described them as "commonplace musical building blocks" found in hundreds of other songs.
Mr. Sheeran's song was created independently, according to the jury, which deliberated for about three hours.
"I am obviously very happy with the outcome of the case," Mr. Sheeran said outside the courthouse in a statement. "At the same time, I am extremely frustrated that such baseless claims are allowed to go to court at all."
"We have spent the last eight years talking about two songs with dramatically different lyrics, melodies, and four chords, which are also different and used by songwriters every day, all over the world," Mr. Sheeran went on. "These chords are common building blocks that were used to create music long before 'Let's Get It On' was written and will be used to make music long after we are all gone."
"I am just a guy with a guitar who loves writing music for people to enjoy," he added. "I am not and will never allow myself to be used as a piggy bank for anyone to shake."
Mr. Sheeran rose and hugged members of his legal team as the verdict was read soon after 1 p.m. He then moved over to Mr. Townsend's daughter, Kathryn Gryphon Townsend, and embraced her as well. They exchanged a few words.
Ms. Townsend then stated that she respected the jury's judgement and had protected her father's legacy.
"I stood up for my father's intellectual properties," she explained. "I was going up against an army."
The case, which was filed in 2017 but was delayed in part by the coronavirus outbreak, featured problems of originality in pop music that have recently been tested in a succession of cases, sparking fears among musicians that the line between inspiration and plagiarism was becoming muddy.
In a landmark 2015 judgement, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams' song "Blurred Lines" was found to have infringed on Gaye's "Got to Give It Up." Five years later, the tide turned: Led Zeppelin won an appeals court victory over its megahit "Stairway to Heaven," and the judges clarified how copyright applies to works with "commonplace elements."
The plaintiffs in Mr. Sheeran's case maintained that, while elements like chords may not be protected separately, their "selection and arrangement" on "Let's Get It On" was original and distinctive enough to deserve protection. The plaintiffs' case, according to Mr Sheeran's side, did not pass the high legal standard required for such protection.
Mr. Sheeran, who has been accused of plagiarism twice before, seemed irritated and aggressive on the witness at times.
"To come in and have someone say, 'We don't believe you; you must have stolen it,'" Mr. Sheeran expressed his displeasure, saying, "I find that really insulting."
He argued that he did not steal from "Let's Get It On," and by playing an acoustic guitar in the witness box, he demonstrated that the chord progression at the heart of both songs was similar but not identical.
The second of the four chords in the progression in "Thinking Out Loud," he testified, was major, refuting an allegation by Alexander Stewart, a musicologist from the University of Vermont hired by the plaintiffs, that it was comparable to a minor one in "Let's Get It On."
"I know what I'm playing on the guitar," Mr. Sheeran explained. "Those are the chords I'm playing."
Mr. Sheeran also called Mr. Stewart's examination of his vocal melodies, which included a modified example, "criminal."
The jury's ability to hear the two songs was limited because to a peculiarity in copyright law. The case only concerned the compositions underlying both tunes — the lyrics, melodies, and chords that can be written down — not their recordings. Copyright for earlier songs, such as "Let's Get It On," is limited to the sheet music, or "deposit copy," that was originally submitted to the United States Copyright Office. On "Let's Get It On," the notation was bare bones.
That meant the jury never heard Gaye's original recording, which reached number one in 1973. Instead, the defendants sent a computer-generated re-creation of the deposit copy, complete with a synthetic voice singing lyrics such as "If you feel like I feel, baby, then come on, let's get it on." Mr. Sheeran's music was heard several times in the studio.
Sophia Neis, one of the jurors, noted after the trial that "the song as we're allowed to hear it" and the "deposit copy" were important pieces of evidence in the jury's decision-making.
"We ultimately came to what we thought was the right interpretation of the law," she explained.
"It's obviously cool to have anyone play music in front of you live," she said, referring to Mr. Sheeran's decision to perform on the stand. "That was an interesting surprise."
Ms. Townsend, who came to court wearing a tan coat with the word "integrity" printed on the back, said she filed the suit to defend her father's legacy. The proceedings were halted on Day 3 of the trial when she fell and was rushed to the hospital.
Ben Crump, a civil rights lawyer who represented the families of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, was one of Ms. Townsend's litigators. In his opening statement, Mr. Sheeran told the jury that the evidence in the case included "a smoking gun": a fan video of him moving flawlessly between "Thinking Out Loud" and "Let's Get It On" at a European concert.
Mr. Sheeran defended his "mash-up" style, claiming that he routinely performed similar medleys in concert, which are made possible by mainstream pop music's narrow harmonic palette. He demonstrated for the jurors while holding his guitar.
"Most pop songs can fit over most pop songs," remarked Mr. Sheeran. "You could go from 'Let It Be' to 'No Woman, No Cry' and then switch back."
The plaintiffs in the action, in addition to Ms. Townsend, were a trust for Helen McDonald, Mr. Townsend's sister who died after the case was filed, and the estate of Cherrigale Townsend, his former wife.
Mr. Sheeran's victory preserves the status quo in terms of copyright for the music industry as a whole. Following the upheaval of the "Blurred Lines" case, many observers saw Led Zeppelin's victory as steering copyright cases back into more familiar territory. Katy Perry and her collaborators on the song "Dark Horse" were among the first to benefit from the verdict.
"This is a win for all songwriters, including the next Ed Townsend and Marvin Gaye," Jennifer Jenkins, a Duke law professor who focuses in music copyright, said. "The copyright to the original, creative elements of 'Let's Get It On' remains intact, but this decision frees up the scaffolding on which it was built."
Ms. Townsend said after the verdict was read that she was relieved to finally have the opportunity to meet with Mr. Sheeran and that he had invited her to a show on his upcoming tour, which begins on Saturday. "If we had just been able to talk," she explained, "we wouldn't be here today."