Jury: Sheeran Didn’t Violate Gaye’s Copyright
June 20th, 2023
A New York federal jury has found that musician Ed Sheeran and his co-writer Amy Wadge did not copy Marvin Gaye’s hit 1973 song “Let’s Get It On.”
The decision came after an eight-year-long legal battle in which it was alleged that Sheeran’s 2014 hit song “Thinking Out Loud” improperly copied chord progressions from Gaye’s song.
The two songs can be compared via the links here.
The lawsuit was brought by the wife and descendants of Ed Townsend, who co-wrote the Gaye song.
The plaintiffs claimed that the case had a racial element. As the New York Times reported,
Ben Crump, the civil rights lawyer who was part of the plaintiffs’ team, defined the dispute squarely in racial terms. “Mr. Sheeran blatantly took a Black artist’s music who he doesn’t view as worthy of compensation,” he said at a news conference in March.
An op-ed in The Washington Post by singer-songwriter Elizabeth Nelson claimed that a victory by Gaye’s estate would be “a threat to Western civilization.”
As Nelson explained,
a chord progression is a sequence of grouped notes arrayed in the chosen manner of a composer to create a melody, the scaffolding on which essentially all songs are built.
She suggested that
The dispute boils down to whether the millennia-long continuum of music-making is a valuable tradition that should be vouchsafed for future generations of composers, songwriters and listeners, or alternatively that entire swaths of the fundamental vernacular of a human art form should be divided up and parceled out as intellectual property for the private use and profit of a few.
Sheeran’s lawyers told the jury that what the musician was accused of copying included a stock chord progression and syncopated rhythmic pattern.
Sheeran said in a statement before the verdict,
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 create music long after we are all gone.
Sheeran’s musicologist expert witness noted that more than a dozen songs, including the Seekers’ “Georgy Girl” and Donovan’s “Hurdy Gurdy Man,” used the same basic sequence before “Let’s Get It On.”
Sheeran’s legal team also submitted into evidence a guitar textbook citing the chord sequence as a standard progression.
Those musical elements were found to be so generic that the judge in the case stipulated that they couldn’t be protected by copyright.
In her closing statement to the jury, Sheeran’s attorney, Ilene S. Farkas, said that a victory for the plaintiffs would stifle creativity.
As the Times noted,
Sheeran’s win means that music’s wider legal landscape remains largely undisturbed. After the shock of the “Blurred Lines” verdict in 2015, in which Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were ordered to pay more than $5 million to Gaye’s family — a case that many experts felt was wrongly decided — Led Zeppelin prevailed in a suit involving “Stairway to Heaven,” sending the pendulum back to a more neutral position.
Sheeran previously successfully defended himself against a copyright infringement claim in England involving his hit “Shape of You.”
In a video posted to Instagram, he said “Coincidence is bound to happen if 60,000 [songs] are being released every day on Spotify.”