NEW YORK – Ed Sheeran’s 2014 hit “Thinking Out Loud” did not unlawfully copy from Marvin Gaye’s classic 1973 song “Let’s Get It On,” a jury decided on Thursday in a closely watched copyright lawsuit – a verdict that the British pop star said would help protect the creative process for song writers in the U.S. and globally.
The jury in Manhattan federal court determined that heirs of “Let’s Get It On” songwriter Ed Townsend had not proven that Sheeran, his label Warner Music Group and his music publisher Sony Music Publishing had infringed their copyright interest in Mr. Gaye’s song. Mr. Sheeran hugged his attorneys in the courtroom after the verdict was read.
“It’s devastating to be accused of stealing someone else’s song when we’ve put so much work into our livelihoods,” Mr. Sheeran said outside the courthouse following the verdict.
“I want to thank the jury for making the decision that will help protect the creative process for song writers here in the United States and all around the world,” Mr. Sheeran added.
The verdict came after six days of trial and less than three hours of jury deliberations.
Mr. Townsend’s heirs sued Sheeran for copyright infringement in 2017, contending that “Thinking Out Loud” copied the “heart” of Gaye’s song including its melody, harmony and rhythm. Mr. Sheeran’s attorneys argued that any similarities between the songs involve basic musical “building blocks” that cannot be copyrighted.
The plaintiffs asked for a share of the profits from “Thinking Out Loud.” The heirs said in a court filing that they received 22% of the writer’s share of Mr. Gaye’s song from Mr. Townsend.
“I’m just a guy with a guitar who loves writing music for people to enjoy. I am not and will never allow myself to be a piggy bank for anyone to shake,” Mr. Sheeran said after the verdict.
PLAYING A CHORD PROGRESSION
Testifying during the trial, Mr. Sheeran denied the copyright infringement claims, telling the jury, “I find it really insulting to devote my whole life to being a performer and a songwriter and have someone diminish it.”
Mr. Sheeran on the witness stand played the chord progression to “Thinking Out Loud” and sang the opening words: “When your legs don’t work like they used to.” Mr. Sheeran testified that his friend and collaborator Amy Wadge first started strumming the chords for the song during a visit to his home in England, and that they collaborated on the lyrics.
Ben Crump, a lawyer representing the heirs, told jurors that Sheeran effectively confessed to ripping off Mr. Gaye’s song when he performed it live in concert as a medley with “Thinking Out Loud.”
Mr. Sheeran testified that singers frequently perform such “mash ups,” and that he had on other occasions combined his song with Van Morrison’s “Crazy Love” and Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You.”
Juror Sophia Neis, 23, told reporters afterward that there had been “a lot of back and forth” in the jury room before the panel made its decision.
Lawyers for Mr. Townsend’s heirs did not immediately respond to a request for comment after the verdict.
Mr. Gaye, who died in 1984, collaborated with Mr. Townsend, who died in 2003, to write “Let’s Get It On,” which topped the Billboard charts. Mr. Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” peaked at No. 2 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 2015.
Two similar lawsuits are pending against Sheeran in Manhattan, brought by investment banker and “Bowie Bonds” creator David Pullman’s Structured Asset Sales LLC, which also owns copyright interests in Mr. Gaye’s song.
Mr. Pullman said after the verdict that he and his lawyers had learned from the trial.
“We’ll know what to expect,” Mr. Pullman said.
Mr. Pullman said one of his lawsuits in particular would be different because it involved a copyright on the recording of “Let’s Get It On,” rather than just the sheet music. Jurors in that case would be able to hear Mr. Gaye’s original hit, rather than the computerized rendition played in the now-completed trial, Mr. Pullman said.
Mr. Sheeran won a trial in London last year in a separate copyright case over his hit “Shape of You.” Mr. Gaye’s heirs won an important verdict in 2015 when a jury in Los Angeles agreed with the claims that the Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams song “Blurred Lines” copied Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” – Reuters