Ed Sheeran: what was his copyright trial all about?

·5-min read
Ed Sheeran: what was his copyright trial all about?

Ed Sheeran has won his latest copyright case, with a US court ruling that he did not copy a chord progression from Marvin Gaye’s 1973 track Let’s Get It On.

“I’m obviously very happy with the outcome of the case,” Sheeran said in a statement outside the Manhattan court. “But at the same time, I’m unbelievably frustrated that baseless claims like this are allowed to go to court at all.”

“I am not and will never allow myself to be a piggy bank for anyone to shake,” he added.

The suit had been filed by the family of Ed Townsend, an American singer-songwriter who co-wrote Gaye’s 1973 track. The family believed that Sheeran copied a set of chords from Let’s Get It On to make his 2014 hit single Thinking Out Loud.

The ante had upped this week as Sheeran took to the witness stand, saying, “I find it really insulting to devote my whole life to being a performer and a songwriter and have someone diminish it” and threatened to stop making music if the court found against him. “If that happens, I’m done, I’m stopping,” he said.

Yesterday Sheeran said, “It looks like I’m not going to have to retire from my day job after all.”

If you’re just catching up with the trial now, here’s everything you need to know.

Where was the trial taking place?

Ed Sheeran arriving at the federal court in New York on April 25, 2023 (Getty Images)
Ed Sheeran arriving at the federal court in New York on April 25, 2023 (Getty Images)

It was taking place at a Manhattan federal court and lasted around two weeks.

Who was Ed Sheeran being sued by?

Sheeran was being sued by Townsend’s heirs. The three plaintiffs – Townsend’s daughter Kathryn Griffin Townsend, Ed Townsend’s ex-wife Cherrigale Townsend’s estate and Townsend’s sister Helen McDonald – were seeking damages, which, according to The Guardian, would mean a share of the profits from Sheeran’s hit song. The court case reportedly began as a lawsuit that was filed several years ago by the Townsend family.

“The defendants copied the heart of Let’s and repeated it continuously throughout Thinking,” said the attorneys for the Townsend family.

“I have to protect my father’s legacy,” said Griffin Townsend as the trial opened.

Who is Ed Townsend?

Ed Townsend (1929-2003) was an American composer and writer who also served in Korea and had trained as an attorney. He wrote and performed For Your Love, which went to number 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1958. He also co-wrote Let’s Get It On with Marvin Gaye (1939-1984), which went to number one on the US Billboard Hot 100.

What is Thinking Out Loud?

Thinking Out Loud was the third single released from Ed Sheeran’s 2014 second studio album, x (Multiply). Sheeran co-wrote the song with British singer-songwriter Amy Wadge.

Thinking Out Loud went straight to the top of the charts, where it spent 19 weeks in the UK top 40, peaking at number one in the UK singles charts, and at number two in the US Billboard Hot 100. In 2016 it was nominated for three Grammys and won two (Song of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance).

What did Ed Sheeran say about the case?

Sheeran wasn’t happy about the copyright case. Not only did he speak about finding the accusation against him “insulting”, but when he spoke about the musicologist who had been called in to draw comparisons between the two tracks Sheeran said: “If I have to be honest, what he’s doing here is criminal — I don’t know why he’s allowed to be an expert”.

Sheeran also explained during his witness statement that a lot of pop songs sound the same, which is why he sometimes mixes in other songs into his when performing. The Townsends’ team had used a clip of Sheeran performing Thinking Out Loud on stage during a concert in Zurich, in which he mixed it with Let’s Get It On, to show the songs’ similarities. They called it “a smoking gun”.

“Most pop songs can fit over most pop songs … 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,” said Sheeran on the stand.

What else happened during the trial?

The case was full of drama: last week Griffin Townsend fainted in court, and needed to be carried out.

Plus, Sheeran, wearing a suit and tie, sang and played his guitar to the packed courtroom during his nearly hour-long testimony. He demonstrated the mixing up of popular songs, as well as the actual chord progression that the trial revolves around.

He also showed and explained the story of how he and Wadge went about composing and writing his hit song. Then he explained the inspiration for his tracks – “I draw inspiration from a lot from things in my life and family,” he said – saying that Thinking Out Loud was inspired by his grandparents’ love for one another.

This wasn’t Sheeran’s first trial of this kind

Sheeran was also summoned to the stand in March 2022, when he was accused of plagiarising Sami Chokri and Ross O’Donoghue’s 2015 song Oh Why on his 2017 hit Shape of You, but Sheeran won the 11-day trial and was awarded $1.1 million for legal fees.

“Claims like this are way too common now and have become a culture where a claim is made with the idea that a settlement will be cheaper than taking it to court, even if there is no basis for the claim, and it’s really damaging to the songwriting industry,” said Sheeran at the time.

In 2016 Sheeran was also sued by two of the songwriters of a track which was created for X Factor winner Matt Cardle, titled Amazing. In this case, Sheeran did settle, and according to The New York Times, his 2014 song Photograph, the subject of the suit, now has the two songwriters listed in its credits.