Musician Ed Sheeran took the stand Tuesday in a high-profile copyright trial about whether his smash single “Thinking Out Loud” copied a classic Marvin Gaye song. Ben Crump, a lawyer representing the family of the co-writer for Gaye’s 1973 hit “Let’s Get It On,” said in his opening statement that Sheeran played his ballad and Gaye’s song back-to-back in a medley during a concert, and called the moment a “smoking gun.” Sheeran is accused of copying “Let’s Get It On” by the heirs of Ed Townsend, who co-wrote the song with Gaye.
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Townsend’s daughter Kathryn Townsend Griffin, sister Helen McDonald and the estate of his former wife, Cherrigale Townsend, are the listed plaintiffs on the “Thinking Out Loud” case. Gaye died in 1984 and Townsend died in 2003. Sheeran was called to testify Tuesday by Townsend attorney Keisha Rice. During his testimony, the musician said the idea of creating the medley was “probably mine.” He said if he had, indeed, copied “Let’s Get It On,” then he “would’ve been an idiot to stand on stage in front of 20,000 people.” Sheeran’s legal team declined to cross examine the musician on Rice’s questions, and said they want to ask him their own questions as they present their case at a later time.
Earlier in Tuesday’s court proceedings, Crump attempted to portray Sheeran as someone who recognized the “magic” of Gaye’s soul song and then used it to catapult his career. “Thinking Out Loud” would go on to win the 2016 Grammy award for song of the year. “if you remember nothing else about this trial, about this case, it is about giving credit where credit is due,” Crump told the jury, which was selected Monday. Sheeran’s legal team argued that the sounds used in both songs are common in pop music. “No one owns basic musical building blocks,” Ilene Farkas, Sheeran’s lawyer, told the jury in opening remarks. Sheeran’s lawyer Donald Zakarin cross-examined Townsend Griffin Tuesday afternoon. Zakarin said that Sony sent reports from two musicologists to Townsend’s counsel in 2015 that concluded there are no valid claims of copying because the song uses common chord progressions. Lawyers asked if Townsend Griffin noticed the chord progression in “Let’s Get It On” is used in other songs like “Heart and Soul” or “Earth Angel.” She said she’s never dissected a song until she listened to “Thinking Out Loud.” “I don’t think my father’s a thief,” Townsend Griffin said. She said she hired her own musicologists for her “personal clarity.” There have been a number of prominent music copyright lawsuits in recent years.
Gaye’s family has previously sued other artists for copyright infringement—and won. The estate successfully sued singer Robin Thicke and producer Pharrell Williams for $7.4 million in 2015 for borrowing from Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” for their hit “Blurred Lines,” though the case turned into a five-year legal battle that ultimately saw the judgment reduced to $5.3 million. The ruling also awarded Gaye’s family 50% percent of the royalties from “Blurred Lines” moving forward. But other, recent copyright cases have had different outcomes. Taylor Swift faced a similar case in 2017 over her smash hit “Shake It Off,” which was settled and dismissed last year. Led Zeppelin was sued in 2014 over its iconic tune “Stairway to Heaven” by the estate of late Randy California, former lead guitarist of the 1960s band Spirit, for lifting part of their single “Taurus.” A 2020 appeals court ruled in Led Zeppelin’s favor. Sheeran, meanwhile, has faced previous legal battles over his music and won.
In a 2022 case over his song “Shape of You,” a judge ruled in Sheeran’s favor that he did not copy grime artist Sami Switch’s song “Oh Why” after the musician accused Sheeran of plagiarizing a key part. He was also sued in 2016 over his single “Photograph,” which was settled out of court. After his successful 2022 legal battle, Sheeran posted a video to his Instagram voicing his concern over the recent wave of music copyright cases. “It’s really damaging to the songwriting industry. There’s only so many notes and very few chords used in pop music. Coincidence is bound to happen if 60,000 songs are being released every day on Spotify. That’s 22 million songs a year, and there’s only 12 notes that are available,” Sheeran said. “I’m not an entity. I’m not a corporation. I’m a human being. I’m a father. I’m a husband. I’m a son. Lawsuits are not a pleasant experience.”