Exclusive: Ed Sheeran Faces Yet Another Multi-Million Dollar Copyright Lawsuit

Ed Sheeran, 2013 (2nd case vs. Marvin Gaye estate)
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Ed Sheeran, 2013 (2nd case vs. Marvin Gaye estate)
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photo: Eva Rinaldi (CC 2.0)

Last year, Ed Sheeran got served with a multi-million dollar copyright infringement lawsuit.  Now, he’s dealing with another one.

Updated, Sun Jul 16th: In our first version of this article, we wrongly attributed the first lawsuit to the Marvin Gaye estate.   And, he hasn’t technically been served on this second suit (that’s an important detail as you’ll see!)  Here’s the updated revision.

Last year, Ed Sheeran was slapped with a major lawsuit alleging copyright infringement.  The singer was accused of copying the soul classic, ‘Let’s Get It On,’ without seeking permission beforehand.

In the lawsuit, Sheeran was flatly criticized for copy-catting on ‘Thinking Out Loud’.  The Estate of writer Ed Townsend blasted Sheeran for blatantly ripping off the chord progression, creating a slightly different arrangement, and putting different words on top.

Sheeran is now facing damages as high as $20 million.  And a seriously derailed career in the process.

The similarities between the songs are striking.  But is this just copyright trolling?  Sheeran became the latest high-profile target, and a perceived victim of copyright abuse.  After all, how complicated was this chord progression?  And it was probably used dozens of times — before and after ‘Let’s Get It On’.

Then, this damning video came to light.

At roughly 4:29 in this 2014 performance in Zurich, Sheeran smoothly transitions ‘Thinking Out Loud’ to ‘Let’s Get It On’. The shift is shocking, mainly because it demonstrates the incredible similarity of the songs.

Introducing Lawsuit #2.

According to legal paperwork shared this morning with Digital Music News, the estate of Ed Townsend is now suing for a second time.   That’s peculiar, given that the estate filed the same lawsuit last year.  But it turns out that Townsend attorneys failed to properly serve Ed Sheeran and a number of other defendants in time.  So the case was shelved.

Maybe the Townshend lawyers need to brush up on their servicing skills.  Out of 15 total defendants, only two received court-approved servicing.  Overseas servicing was particularly ineffective, and enough to sinkhole the entire case.  That’s actually really tricky component of international litigation, with servicing delays sometimes spanning months (if not years).

Accordingly, after a 90 day window lapsed, a judged dismissed the suit with prejudice.  That left Atlantic Recording Corp. and Warner Music Group Corp. as remaining defendants.  And without Sheeran and his attorneys, the case wasn’t worth hearing.

Now, the heirs of songwriter Ed Townsend, led by Kathryn Townsend Griffin, are filing legal paperwork — again — in US District Court for the Southern District of New York (Manhattan).  And they’ve probably figured out how to serve Ed Sheeran properly this time.

The allegations are highly similar, with Sheeran facing even greater damages.  Also cited as defendants are Atlantic Records, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC and Asylum Records.

All of which means Sheeran is facing a legal pile-on, with a gaggle of copyright attorneys on the attack.

(Please note: we’ll have the official filed lawsuit uploaded soon.)

Damages may now soar into the tens of millions.  And collectively, the two cases have the potential to seriously stall Sheeran’s career.

Marvin Gaye the Monster?

All of which raises the question: has the Marvin Gaye Estate unleashed a new era of copyright trolling in music?

Just recently, the duo of Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke were saddled with $5.3 million in fines for allegedly stealing another Gaye classic.  Despite serious differences in both key signature and composition, ‘Blurred Lines’ was found to be infringing upon ‘Gotta Give It Up’.

22 Songs That Sound More Similar Than Blurred Lines and ‘Got To Give It Up’

Similarities in style were ultimately the reason for infringement — not technical ‘copying’.  In other words: even if the notes are totally different, a jury can still award millions for copyright infringement.  It all depends on their untrained ears.


Pharrell has already led the effort to reverse that decision.  And the Marvin Gaye family is catching some flack (justified or not).  “Lots of people will be commenting on how Ed Sheehan rips people off, saying he’s not original and Marvin Gaye was amazing, etc.” Sheeran fan Sarah Koch declared.  “Well the fact is that there are only so many chords and so many notes.”

“They are lyrically and musically completely different. When [‘Thinking Out Loud’] came out (two years ago btw) I never once thought it sounded similar to “Let’s Get It On”.  And yes, I do know that song well.  Why is it taking this songwriter two years to file claims against Ed Sheeran? And does any one else think it’s odd especially following the lawsuit against “Blurred Lines”? Which also happened to be a Marvin Gaye song?”

Another Sheeran fan echoed that sentiment, despite the obvious similarities.  “The songs are lyrically and musically completely different,” fan Ksenija Jemensek wrote.  “Marvin Gaye’s family just wants money after Sheeran won three Grammys on ‘Thinking Out Loud.'”

“It’s all about money, people.”

More details as they emerge!

11 Responses

  1. The Magic's Back

    The estate is greedy and the claim is unjustified – just as it was with Blurred Lines..
    It’s a copyright con job..

  2. lac

    Sloppy work. Your link goes back to an article about the Townsend estate suing in Aug 2016. Yet your article notes it’s the suit from the Gaye Estate.

    If my memory is correct the Townsend family sued in 2016 not the Gaye Estate. For some reason the judge pulled the Townsend suit. If there are new docs maybe it’s the Townsend Estate filing suit a second time.

    • Paul Resnikoff

      You’re right. It turns out that the first case was actually dismissed, because of improper service. The major labels were eventually let off the hook. So this represents a second try.

  3. Alice

    I don’t think they are that much alike. I can’t see lets get it on in thinking out loud. People just want to hurt this man because he can fill an arena with just him and his ?. Jealousy is what it is.

  4. rui da silva

    you could also sing many other songs on top of those chords like for example Extreme – More Than Words… similar guitar picking.. this is all becoming a massive facade… eager money starved solicitors and greedy suits rampaging thru and extorting money out of sucessfull songwriters, easy pick.

  5. Danwriter

    “derailed career?” The Divide tour is selling out, the album is the top seller of the year so far, and he was on GoT last night. If that’s derailed, I’ll take it.

  6. Rick Shaw

    This isn’t about justice. It’s about a legal beatdown to get a settlement. These troll attorneys talk their clients (Marvin Gaye estate) into suing. It mucks up the courts with unnecessary litigation, and makes other creative people nervous about their own original works. What a sad scene dredged up by scumbag lawyers who should stay under their rocks.

  7. dhenn

    OMG! How many times do we have to tell people you can’t copyright a chord progression! Some of these estate holders are just ignorant and greedy. A really bad combination.

  8. Antinet

    I can’t stand Ed Sheeran, but that chord progression is so basic. I hope a judge lodges a penalty against this family some day, because they are straight up full of crap. This song sounds nothing like Let’s Get It On although clearly it’s a lesson to all pro musicians, NEVER cover a Marvin Gaye song. What a corrupt family Marvin Gaye has. No wonder he had such a tragic life.

  9. Brooke Weinberg

    Interesting article. Definitely going to stay tuned for the legal docs. I wrote an opinion piece following the Blurred Lines case, so I’m very interested to see how the Estate is going to present its case.

  10. dolomuse

    The legal problem seems rooted in the fact that ‘arrangement’ has has two fundamentally different musical meanings, and this distinction is lost with a lack of legal differentiation. Song copyright covers the original arrangement (sequence) of the musical notes of the melody in a song. In this limited context, an arranger can be liable for infringement by violating the composer’s exclusive right to prepare derivative works of his/her song.

    This blurring of the distinction seems to be a result of the continuing extension of copyright protection to samples (fragments) of a recorded ‘arrangement’ via sound recording copyright infringement (song/melodic sequence arrangement + stylistic arrangement).

    As arrangers, our work cannot be copyrighted. Yet, this case shows an attempt to extend the meaning of ‘arrangement’ to also include ‘stylistic arrangements’ – creative instrumentation choices, stylistic clichés and embellishments (i.e. Phil Spector’s ‘wall of sound’ arranging style can’t be copyrighted). In this case, the absence of copyright infringement of the melodic arrangement (sequence) is the salient distinction. I hope this case results in a legal distinction by addressing the error in equivocating both meanings of ‘arrangement’ in copyright law.