A New York federal jury has favoured Ed Sheeran against the estate of songwriter Ed Townsend in one of music’s biggest copyright cases in recent memory. The British singer-songwriter has been accused of copying the Marvin Gaye classic, co-written by Townshend, “Let’s Get It On” in creating his hit “Thinking Out Loud”. The dispute went on for nearly a decade and received massive attention, as it sparked debates about the nature of plagiarism in music.
“Let’s Get It On” was originally released in 1973 as the lead single for the album of the same name. Written by Marvin Gaye and producer Ed Townsend, the song has been one of the most enduring soul hits of the past 50 years and is often regarded as a genre staple. Meanwhile, Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking It Out Loud” was a viral hit from 2014 and one of the songs that helped launch the Suffolk native onto global superstardom.
In 2016, the estate of Ed Townsend sued Sheeran, insisting that his 2014 hit was substantially similar to “Let’s Get It On”. Two years later, Sheeran was sued on similar grounds again, with a whopping $100 million in demanded damages.
The families of the creators of Marvin Gaye’s music are not strangers to copyright disputes. In 2013, Gaye’s family sued the authors of “Blurred Lines” for allegedly copying the song “Got To Give It Up”. Creators Robin Thick and Pharrell were eventually found liable for copyright infringement. Gaye’s family was awarded US$7.4 million in damages for copyright infringement and songwriting credits to Marvin Gaye for the song “Blurred Lines”. The verdict was met with widespread criticism, especially from music industry professionals, who viewed the case to be of bad faith. Major artists such as Weezer, R. Kelly, Train, Hans Zimmer, and others supported Thicke and Pharrell’s appeal.
Many see the similarities between Blurred Lines and Got To Give It Up as minimal and, more importantly, could be attributed to “building blocks” that have been popular in songwriting. This is the essential issue that has coloured many disputes in music copyright, and, in Sheeran’s case, what would ultimately rule the dispute in his favour?
Sheeran did not deny that are indeed similarities between his song and Marvin Gaye’s. However, he argued that many similarities were common archetypes of popular songs. Both songs used a sequence of chords that musicians would identify as an “I-iii-IV-V” pattern (albeit in a different key). The songs may share this pattern, and it does so with hundreds of other popular songs, such as I Feel Fine by The Beatles, Knowing Me Knowing You by Abba, Believe by Cher, and virtually countless others. Each of those songs is distinguishable by other important components that make a song, such as instrumentation, tempo, lyrics, and melody. One component, especially as extensively common and basic as a chord progression, cannot be attributed to one artist.
This argument convinced the Manhattan jury to clear Sheeran of infringement in creating “Thinking It Out Loud”, to the relief of Sheeran and other industry professionals. If the verdict favoured the plaintiff, it could’ve made a harmful precedent for songwriters. Copyrighting chord progressions could fundamentally change how music is written and, perhaps, the entire music industry.
This case offers many lessons for creators and IP experts alike. As we all know, copyright norms dictate that a work must be original and distinguishable from other works. However, it’s also important to identify certain basic traditions and/or commonalities inherent in a certain industry or medium. This knowledge would be vital for us to navigate through potential copyright disputes.
For more information regarding IP, as well as high-quality IP-related services, contact us via email@example.com