Breaking Down the Marvin Gaye v. Ed Sheeran Case: A Timeline of Key Events
The Marvin Gaye vs. Ed Sheeran case refers to a legal dispute between the estate of Marvin Gaye and the British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran over allegations of copyright infringement. In 2016, the estate of Marvin Gaye, a legendary American soul singer, and songwriter, filed a lawsuit against Ed Sheeran, claiming that his hit song "Thinking Out Loud" copied key elements from Gaye's classic 1973 track "Let's Get It On."
The lawsuit alleged that Sheeran's song had a similar melody, harmony, and rhythm to Gaye's track and that Sheeran had deliberately copied Gaye's work. The estate of Marvin Gaye sought monetary damages and a permanent injunction to prevent Ed Sheeran from profiting further from "Thinking Out Loud."
Facts of the Case
Marvin Gaye and Ed Townsend co-wrote the timeless song “Let's Get It On” in 1973. Gaye passed away in 1984 and Townsend passed away in 2003. Townsend’s estate filed a lawsuit against Ed Sheeran in 2016 for using “Let's Get It On” without his consent in his 2014 song “Thinking Out Loud”. Here’s a timeline depicting the entire case so far:
2014: Release of “Thinking Out Loud”
One of Ed Sheeran's first No. 1 singles, "Thinking Out Loud" was the third single from his 2014 album X. It debuted at No. 1 on the UK chart and became his second No. 1 hit. In 2017, it won two Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Best Solo Pop Performance. The song has currently achieved platinum status 12 times in the US.
2016: Beginning of the Marvin Gaye v. Ed Sheeran Case
The 2016 lawsuit had been filed by descendants of Ed Townsend against Ed Sheeran, his music publisher, Sony Music Publishing, and his record company, Warner Music Group, for allegedly plagiarizing Marvin Gaye’s “Let's Get It On” in the song “Thinking Out Loud”. The lawsuit claimed that Sheeran and his songwriting partner Amy Wadge plagiarized the rhythm and ascending four-chord progression of Marvin Gaye’s song.
According to the BBC, the Townsend estate has sued for $100 million in compensation on behalf of Ed Townsend’s daughter Kathryn Townsend Gryphon, sister Helen McDonald, and the estate of his ex-wife Cherri Gale Townsend. The legal action also involves investment banker David Pullman and Structured Asset Sales, which has acquired a portion of Townsend's estate and is the "beneficial owner of the song's copyright" according to the legal document. The case does not include the Gaye family.
Failure and Dismissal of the Case
According to a July 2016 report from Digital Music News, the first case failed because only two papers were properly served on Sheeran and the other 14 defendants, including his publisher Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, and record labels Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Asylum Records, and Atlantic Records. That case was dismissed by the judge in November 2016.
2017: Refiling of the Case
The Townsend estate filed legal documents in Manhattan in July 2017, again. The defendants were Atlantic Records, Sony/ATV Music Publishing LLC, Asylum Records, and Ed Sheeran.
The Townsend estate’s lawyers stated in court documents from 2017 that "The Defendants copied the 'heart' of “Let's Get It On” and repeated it repeatedly throughout “Thinking Out Loud.'" They also argued that the drum composition of “Let's Get It On” and the melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic compositions of “Thinking Out Loud” are substantially and/or startlingly comparable.
Plea of Dismissal by Sheeran
Ed Sheeran tried to have the lawsuit dismissed Immediately, and his attorneys responded that "the alleged similarities between the two songs are actually not similar and that any remaining similarities consist of unprotectable musical elements." Gaye's estate is not a party to the litigation, but they famously prevailed in a case that was very similar to this one in 2015 when a judge ordered Robin Thicke and Pharrell to pay over $7 million in damages after determining that they have copied parts of Gaye's song "Got to Give It Up" on their song "Blurred Lines." The precedent-setting decision, which serves as the foundation for the current Sheeran action, was made at the time.
2019: Court denies Sheeran’s Plea of Dismissal
On January 3, 2019, a US District Court judge denied Sheeran's plea to dismiss the complaint. According to Billboard, Judge Stanton has claimed that the songs' similarity prevented "a judgment of noninfringement as a matter of law." He has also stated that "Average lay observer could conclude that parts of [Thinking Out Loud] were appropriated from [Let's Get It On],", "although the two compositions are not identical.
In addition to a link to the performance video, US music web magazine Spin also cites the judge as saying that the jury members "may be impressed by footage of a Sheeran performance which shows him seamlessly transitioning between [both songs]".
Judge Puts Trial on Hold
In 2019, Judge Louis L. Stanton postponed the trial to wait for the outcome of a related copyright infringement lawsuit involving Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven." Following their victory in the case, it was determined that Led Zeppelin has not infringed on Spirit's 1968 song "Taurus." The trial, which was initially set to begin after these findings, got rescheduled.
2020: Covid-19 Delays Trial
The COVID-19 pandemic hit the world shortly after the Led Zeppelin case was concluded, causing yet another delay in the trial. Judge Louis L. Stanton rejects Ed Sheeran's request to drop the case based on the outcome of the Led Zeppelin copyright infringement case, and the case was still to be prosecuted.
2023: Townsend’s Heirs and Lawyers Refer to the Case as “Appropriation of Black Artists”
The matter has garnered the attention of Townsend's family members. According to CBS News, Townsend's daughter Kathryn Townsend Gryphon stated last month that "this must stop." “We have enough chaos going on in the world today, besides having to stand here and worry about other people stealing other people’s belongings.” Ben Crump, a well-known civil rights lawyer who is defending the family of Townsend, is quoted in the article as claiming that "Thinking Out Loud" exemplifies the history of appropriation of Black artists’ work. Black musicians have created, inspired, and disseminated music around the globe for far too long, according to Crump. He added that Ed Townsend's family considers artists' infringement of Black musicians, including Mr. Sheeran's, to be just another instance of artists taking advantage of the creativity and output of Black singers and composers.
April 23, 2023: Seven Jurors Dismissed Just Before Trial
Seven of the 14 jurors chosen to serve are either admirers of Ed Sheeran or employed by the music industry, and they had to be disqualified the week before the trial was scheduled to start. One of the jurors who has been dismissed, according to the New York Post, taught music history at Columbia University, and another is a former employee of the music business. One informed the judge that she has "two teenage daughters who love Ed Sheeran," and a pregnant juror said that she has danced to Sheeran's song "Perfect" while walking down the aisle at her wedding and would required many breaks as a result of her pregnancy, leading the judge to dismiss her from the jury.
April 24, 2023: Ed Sheeran Testifies in Court
Crump used Sheeran's live mash-up of the two songs during a stage performance in 2014 to support the plaintiffs' claim. The videotaped incident, according to Crump, amounts to a confession. Regarding the mash-up video, Crump declared, "We have a smoking gun." Crump continued, saying Sheeran has "recognized the magic" of Gaye's song and "decided to capture a bit of that magic for his own benefit."
According to The Guardian, Sheeran went to court this week to present his case. He has asserted that "most pop songs can fit over most pop songs," using the Beatles' "Let It Be" and Bob Marley's "No Woman, No Cry" as illustrations. He is reported to have said, "If I had done what you're accusing me of doing, I'd be quite an idiot to stand on a stage in front of 20,000 people and do that," during his defense.
According to the New York Times, Sheeran also brought a guitar and performed the four-chord pattern from "Thinking Out Loud." For the plaintiffs, Sheeran's second chord was compared to the minor chord in the same position in the "Let's Get It On" sequence, according to musicologist Alexander Stewart. Sheeran allegedly performed a major-chord version of the song that he claims to play at "every single gig."
After the weekend, Sheeran returns to the witness stand with his guitar as the trial resumes. He performed several mashups during his testimony, including one of “Thinking Out Loud” and a Van Morrison song, which Sheeran claims were the primary inspiration for his song “Thinking Out Loud”, according to The Daily Beast. Sheeran claims that his producers refer to "Thinking" as the “Van Morrison tune" since the Irish singer-songwriter's voice occasionally reminds them of him. Jurors "appeared amused" during the performance, according to The Beast. Sheeran continued to answer questions from his defense counsel, Ilene Farkas, stating that being accused of stealing a song is "really insulting." When asked what would happen if he lost the lawsuit and the precedent it would set for songwriting, he said, "I'm done."
May 04, 2023: Ed Sheeran Wins Case
After 3 hours of discussion, the jury determined that Ed Sheeran and his co-writer Amy Wadge had independently written their song, "Thinking Out Loud” and Sheeran won the case.
The main point of contention, the chord progression, brought in arguments from both parties. Even though specific components like chords might not fall under copyright in Mr. Sheeran's case, the plaintiffs contended that their "selection and arrangement" on "Let's Get It On" was unique and distinctive enough to merit protection. The defense of Mr. Sheeran retorted that the plaintiffs' claims had failed to clear the rigorous legal hurdle necessary for such protection. The jury sided with Sheeran and established that the song was original.
Impact and Importance of the Case
The trial was being keenly observed in the legal and musical communities as the latest example of a series of decisions that have addressed whether banal melodic or harmonic fragments can be held by any artist or fall under the public domain.
Many legal professionals and musicians were surprised by the 2015 "Blurred Lines" case against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams. The artists were ordered to pay over $5 million in damages. Some believed that the court is penalizing the use of fundamental musical elements, such as harmonies and rhythmic patterns, that were previously believed to be freely usable by all musicians.
That course is challenged by the Led Zeppelin case, which established that certain elements of creative works are so commonly used that only "virtually identical" copies would infringe copyright. Some experts have expressed concern that more controversy may arise if Mr. Sheeran loses.
According to Jennifer Jenkins, a Duke law professor who specializes in music copyright, "If in this case an extremely common chord progression, set to a basic harmonic rhythm, is privatized, then we are going in reverse, and we are removing essential ingredients from every songwriter's tool kit."
With regard to copyright, Mr. Sheeran's victory upholds the status quo for the music industry at large. Duke law professor, Jennifer Jenkins, declared that "this is a win for all songwriters, including the next Ed Townsend and the next Marvin Gaye." "The copyright over the unique, creative elements of 'Let's Get It On' remains intact, but this ruling frees up the foundation it was built upon."
Sheeran’s legal team has argued that the songs' structural similarity is mainly due to the common structural features found in pop music. In a court filing, his attorneys stated that "the two songs share versions of a similar and unprotectable chord progression that was freely available to all songwriters."
The case is currently being closely monitored by the music industry and legal experts, as it poses significant questions about the boundaries of copyright law and the use of musical elements in popular music.