Music fans everywhere were worried last week when Ed Sheeran threatened to “quit music.” The international pop star made this statement in a Manhattan court, vowing he’d be done with the music industry if he lost the copyright lawsuit against him for allegedly plagiarizing parts of his 2014 hit, “Thinking Out Loud.” There’s a good chance you’ve heard this record-breaking track, as it was nominated for several awards and won the Grammy for Song of the Year. The infringement case centered on whether Sheeran had copied elements of this famous song from an even more famous single, Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”
But Sheeran fans can rest at ease now. After a Manhattan jury decided in Sheeran’s favor late last week, the pop star released his newest album, Subtract. Sounds like he’s still in show business.
Copyright Claims Against Sheeran
In 2017, the heirs of Ed Townsend, who co-wrote “Let’s Get It On” with Gaye, filed a lawsuit against Sheeran, alleging that the English singer-songwriter had infringed their copyright on the song. Sheeran’s label, Warner Music Group, along with his music publisher, Sony Music Publishing, were also named as defendants. The plaintiffs in the case had requested a share of the profits from “Thinking Out Loud,” pointing to how they held 22% of entitlement to profits made from “Let’s Get It On.”
Over the last six years, the case made its wait to a federal court in New York City. And last Thursday, the jurors cleared Sheeran of the claims against him. The federal trial had lasted six days, and the verdict was delivered after the jury had deliberated for three hours. Following the verdict, the relieved pop star stated, “It’s devastating to be accused of stealing someone else’s song when we’ve put so much work into our livelihoods.”
But this was not the first time that Sheeran had faced an infringement suit. He had been previously targeted for his more recent Billboard hit, “Shape of You,” from 2017. In that dispute, artist Sami Chokri claimed that Sheeran had copied Chokri’s 2015 song, and took the matter to court in London in 2022. But he ended up coming out the victor in that case, too, when the British judge decided in his favor last April. After winning that case, Sheeran had commented that “baseless” lawsuits like these are “really damaging to the songwriting industry.”
Legal Issues in the Gaye Trial
In the legal battle with Marvin Gaye’s intellectual property, Sheeran’s attorney argued that any elements of “Thinking Out Loud” bearing resemblance to “Let’s Get It On” were not subject to copyright protection because those elements are basic “building blocks” of music regularly used by artists everywhere. As such, she argued that they were not subject to protections against infringement under relevant U.S. law.
For a discussion of copyright, read FindLaw’s breakdown of the issue here. As our team of writers cover in that discussion of protections for intellectual property, “Copyright law only covers the particular form or manner in which information or ideas have been manifested.” In other words, “ideas, concepts, systems, or methods of doing something” are not protected, the U.S. Copyright Office has said. Instead, it is the unique expression of such basic elements for creativity that is protected. The law dictates that only “original works of authorship fixed in any tangible medium of expression” fall within the scope of what is protected (emphasis added).
Based on these legal principles, Sheeran’s attorneys argued that the rhythms and chord progressions that “Thinking Out Loud” might share with Gaye’s song were essentially “the letters of the alphabet of music.” By arguing that, they meant to tap into how non-unique elements of the creative process are not subject to copyright protections.
Gaye’s attorney argued that contrary to what the defense was claiming, the plaintiffs were not claiming stakes on basic musical elements, but rather “the way in which these common elements were uniquely combined.” But the Manhattan jury found Sheeran’s argument more convincing.
Takeaways From the Sheeran Suits
It’s not always just a question of greedy copyright-holders when a high-profile case like this takes place.
The U.S. Constitution means to “promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.” While it might not be immediately apparent, at issue in any infringement lawsuit is always whether that interest in promoting such progress is being served.
Sheeran and his team saw the lawsuit as hindering musical progress. As his attorney expressed, what they saw as the core issue was a fight around fundamental building blocks “that songwriters now and forever must be free to use, or all of us who love music will be poorer for it.” Whether or not you agree with the outcome of the case, cases like this one will shape the future of artistic creation and legal limitations surrounding the music industry.
Read more about copyright law in FindLaw’s Learn About the Law resource pages:
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