British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran has been cleared of copyright infringement after a US jury found he did not copy Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On when he wrote his hit song, Thinking Out Loud. The lawsuit, filed by heirs of Gaye co-writer Ed Townsend, claimed that Sheeran had copied the “heart” of Gaye’s song, including its melody, harmony and rhythm. Sheeran’s victory was celebrated as a win for creative freedom by the pop star himself, who said he would have been “devastated” had the verdict gone the other way. Sheeran, who testified in court, argued that the 1-3-4-5 chord progression used in his song was a “building block” of pop music and could not be owned.
The verdict was closely watched by industry insiders who were concerned it could open the door to further litigation and hamper songwriters’ creativity. Sheeran’s victory followed a similar win in London last year over his hit song Shape Of You, in which he argued that copyright litigation had gone too far. Other landmark music copyright cases in recent years include the 2015 lawsuit in which members of Gaye’s family sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams over their song Blurred Lines, which had similarities to Gaye’s Got to Give it Up.
Joe Bennett, a forensic musicologist at Berklee College of Music, said he was “delighted” that “sanity prevailed” in the case. Bennett argued that plaintiffs in music copyright litigation often alleged plagiarism over just one or two bars of music, and that coincidental similarities were common. Bennett hoped that the verdict would discourage “spurious complaints” in the future.
Despite his victory, Sheeran still faces two similar lawsuits in New York, brought by investment banker David Pullman’s Structured Asset Sales, which also owns copyright interests in the Gaye song. Pullman said that he and his lawyers had learned from the trial and would know what to expect.
Sheeran’s case highlights the difficulty of establishing the line between inspiration and infringement in music copyright. While the chord progression used in Thinking Out Loud is a common feature of pop music, it is also similar to the one used in Let’s Get It On. Experts say that cases like this one can be difficult to judge, as the legal system is not always well-equipped to deal with artistic creativity.
The verdict will likely be welcomed by musicians, who have long been concerned about the impact of copyright litigation on their creativity. In recent years, artists like Sheeran have been accused of copying the work of other musicians, and many have argued that such cases are stifling innovation in the industry. The verdict in Sheeran’s case will be seen as a step in the right direction by those who believe that musicians should be free to draw on the work of others, so long as they do not copy it outright.
Overall, Sheeran’s victory in the copyright infringement case brought against him is a significant one, and will likely be seen as a landmark moment in the ongoing debate over music copyright. While the line between inspiration and infringement is a difficult one to draw, the verdict in this case suggests that the courts are willing to err on the side of creativity, rather than stifling it through over-zealous litigation. Whether or not the decision will set a precedent for future cases remains to be seen, but for now, musicians like Sheeran can breathe a little easier knowing that they are still free to create music without fear of legal action.