Did Ed Sheeran steal “Thinking Out Loud”? Not according to a federal jury decision issued this morning. The superstar singer-songwriter has emerged victorious in a closely-watched copyright infringement lawsuit filed by the estate of a Marvin Gaye songwriter — and pockets of the music industry are breathing a sigh of relief.
Ed Sheeran is ‘not guilty’ in a high-stakes copyright infringement battle involving his Grammy-winning track “Thinking Out Loud,” according to decision details shared with Digital Music News this morning. The courtroom battle focused on whether Sheeran and his collaborators pilfered the Marvin Gaye classic, “Let’s Get It On.”
After roughly three hours of closed-door deliberations, a jury in the Manhattan federal court trial ruled that Sheeran was not liable for willful copyright infringement. Those jury instructions will now be passed to the presiding judge, who is expected to certify the results and close the case.
While not defining a firm legal precedent, the case could shift the contours of future copyright infringement cases involving similar musical works.
The testy trial was lodged by the estate of Marvin Gaye co-writer Ed Townsend, who demanded restitution for blatant copyright infringement.
As part of the plaintiff’s attack, jurors were shown video footage of Sheeran performing a medley of the two songs, with “Thinking Out Loud” seamlessly transitioning into “Let’s Get It On.”
The Ed Townsend estate attorney, Ben Crump, called the mashup a ‘smoking gun’ and framed the evidence as conclusive proof of theft. But the seemingly-damning evidence wasn’t enough to pin infringement on Sheeran.
Instead, Sheeran’s lawyers argued that both songs contained widely-used musical elements and arrangements. Indeed, the defense argued that if a simple four-chord progression and downtempo soul vibe constitute infringement, a vast amount of popular music could be considered mutually infringing.
Sheeran himself found the allegations frivolous and preposterous, and expressed as much during the proceedings. The singer-songwriter was surprisingly ‘vocal’ in his frustrations throughout the multi-week trial and even threatened to quit music if he lost the case.
“If I had done what you’re accusing me of doing, I’d be quite an idiot to stand on stage in front of 25,000 people,” Sheeran bluntly stated during the trial. After the not guilty verdict was revealed, Ed Sheeran was visibly relieved. He placed his hands on his face, then hugged his attorney.
Interestingly, Sheeran didn’t pretend that Marvin Gaye didn’t offer some inspiration to his creative process. But creativity pulls from a patchwork of influences, and shouldn’t be stifled simply because of resulting similarities to earlier works. “We all benefit from artists being free to create and build on what came before them,” Sheeran’s attorney Ilene Farkas argued, warning that “creativity would be stifled for fear of being sued.”
The results are being viewed with relief in many corners of the songwriting, publishing, and music IP community.
Perhaps the multi-year ‘chilling effect’ created by similar cases has thawed a bit, with ultra-aggressive and even frivolous claims now more risky for litigants. Digital Music News hasn’t taken any formal polls on the matter, though informal feedback from numerous songwriters, publishers, and music IP owners suggests an increased level of anxiety over a spate of copyright-related lawsuits over the past few years.
This case, however, presents a setback for litigious IP owners. “Let’s hope this is the first of many [similar case outcomes],” one publishing exec emailed DMN. “Many were worried this is all going to the crazy place.”
That ‘crazy place’ refers to an ultra-litigious environment wherein any hit is considered fair game for litigation, simply because it bears similarity to an earlier piece. Perhaps the most shocking result came several years ago in a landmark ruling against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, whose “Blurred Lines” was found liable for copyright infringement.
Notably, that decision was rendered based on similarities to sonic elements found within Marvin Gaye’s “Gotta Give It Up,” not direct infringement of specific note patterns, rhythms, or other concrete compositional details.
Whether that case was an anomaly remains unclear, especially with juries and judges remaining unpredictable on compositional creativity boundaries. “As we saw before on the ‘Blurred Lines’ case, a jury-based system can sometimes lead to unpredictable outcomes when faced with complex, technical questions at the intersection between copyright law and music theory,” copyright attorney Nick Eziefula, a partner at media and entertainment law firm, Simkins told DMN.
“This decision will ease concerns of the floodgates being opened to ever more song infringement claims of this kind.”