Ed Sheeran vs Marvin Gaye: Why was the singer sued over copyright claims?
Ed Sheeran has won a US lawsuit after a jury found that he did not copy Motown singer Marvin Gaye’s most iconic song, following a two-week trial in New York.
The case centred on whether the British singer-songwriter’s 2014 hit Thinking Out Loud ripped off elements of Gaye’s 1973 soul classic Let’s Get It On, and will be seen as a major victory for recording artists.
Sheeran told the court before the verdict that he would quit the music industry if he lost the case. “If that happens, I’m done, I’m stopping,” he said. “I find it really insulting to devote my whole life to being a performer and a songwriter and have someone diminish it.”
The court case was reminiscent of the superstar’s legal battle with London artist Sami Chokri in 2022 over his song Shape Of You, in which Sheeran also emerged victorious.
The case was brought by the family of Ed Townsend, Gaye’s co-writer on the 1973 hit, who alleged that the English pop star’s tune had “striking similarities” to Let’s Get It On and “overt common elements” that violate their copyright.
Here, we take a closer look at the British superstar’s latest legal battle and the implications for the music industry.
Why was Ed Sheeran sued?
The British musician was taken to court in the US over allegations he copied parts of Marvin Gaye’s hit song Let’s Get It On for his own track Thinking Out Loud.
The family of Ed Townsend, the co-writer of the 1973 soul classic, claimed that Sheeran’s 2014 song bore “striking similarities” to Gaye’s track and that Sheeran had copied “substantial parts of it”.
During the trial, lawyers for the plaintiffs said the case was about “giving credit where credit is due”.
Kathryn Townsend Griffin, Townsend’s daughter and the leading plaintiff in the case, said she had not wanted to take Sheeran to court, but that she had to “protect my father’s legacy”.
What were the specific allegations?
Townsend’s family claimed that Sheeran had infringed on their interest in Gaye’s song by copying its “harmonic progressions, melodic and rhythmic elements” – which they described as the “heart” of the track.
“The defendants copied the ‘heart’ of Let’s (Get It On) and repeated it continuously throughout Thinking (Out Loud),” their claim stated, adding that it had been done “without consent, credit or compensation”.
“As a result, members of the public have been deceived and/or confused into thinking that Thinking (Out Loud) is the independent creation of the defendants.”
The complaint added the conduct, which had resulted in “illegal revenues”, had been “knowing and wilful”.
What has Ed Sheeran said about the allegations?
Sheeran had denied the allegations, saying he created the song with collaborator Amy Wadge independently, and would have been an “idiot” to have copied the song.
During his own testimony, he became audibly frustrated at times and said he could not believe how someone would seek to “diminish” one of his songs by alleging he had stolen it.
“I find it really insulting,” he said, according to the Associated Press, adding that testimony given by one of the plaintiffs’ expert witnesses was ‘criminal’.
Sheeran also sang and played guitar several times while in the witness box, to explain his songwriting process.
After the verdict was returned, Sheeran said: “I’m obviously very happy with the outcome of this case and it looks like I’m not going to have to retire from my day job after all.”
Kathryn Townsend Griffin, the daughter of Gaye’s co-writer Ed Townsend, was also spotted after the trial, apparently smoking a cigarillo, saying: “God is good all the time, all the time God is good.”
How much was he sued for?
Damages in the case were unspecified, though the family said they were interested in “all of the money that is generated from the distribution and any other exploitation” of Sheeran’s track.
Their original complaint stated that Sheeran had earned an “undetermined, yet substantial” sum from the success of Thinking Out Loud.
They requested an accounting in order to “determine the sums rightfully due to the plaintiff and that those sums be paid to them” – as well as legal fees.
The family also requested a preliminary and permanent injunction against any future recording, distribution or public performance of Thinking Out Loud.
What are the implications for the music industry?
During his evidence, Sheeran said that since the start of his US trial, he had received encouragement and support from other singers, who had shared their own concerns about litigation resulting from their songwriting.
Last year, he spoke out about a “damaging” culture of “unwarranted” legal claims against songwriters, after winning a similar High Court copyright battle over his track Shape Of You.
The singer said legal challenges are “way too common” and also detailed the effect on his mental health and creativity.
He added that he would “continue to stand up against baseless claims” in order to protect the “rights and the integrity” of musical creativity.