A jury in New York has ruled that British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran is not liable for copyright infringement in a case that has been closely watched by the global entertainment industry.
The case centered on whether Sheeran ripped off Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On and will be seen as a major victory for recording artists.
Sheeran had made an earlier claim that he would quit the 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.”
After the verdict had been delivered Sheeran hugged his lawyer. His wife, Cherry Seaborn, and co-writer, Amy Wadge, were reportedly in tears.
Outside court, Sheeran told reporters: “I am obviously very happy with the outcome of the case and it looks like I am not having to retire from my day job after all. But at the same time I’m unbelievably frustrated that baseless claims like this are allowed to go to court at all.”
He said it was “devastating” to be accused of stealing someone else’s song and called himself “just a guy with a guitar who loves writing music for people to enjoy” and will never allow himself to be “a piggybank for anyone to shake”.
Sheeran’s lawyer, Ilene Farkas, had told the jurors in Manhattan federal court that similarities in the chord progressions and rhythms of Gaye’s classic and Sheeran’s hit Thinking Out Loud were “the letters of the alphabet of music”.
“These are basic musical building blocks that songwriters now and forever must be free to use, or all of us who love music will be poorer for it,” she said.
But Keisha Rice, who represents the heirs of Gaye’s co-writer Ed Townsend who are suing Sheeran and his record label, said her clients had not claimed to own basic musical elements but rather “the way in which these common elements were uniquely combined”.
“Mr Sheeran is counting on you to be very, very overwhelmed by his commercial success,” she said as she had urged the jurors to use their “common sense” to decide whether the songs are similar.
The judge had sent the jury into deliberations, saying: “Independent creation is a complete defense, no matter how similar that song is.” The jury reached its decision after three hours.
Townsend’s heirs in 2017 sued Sheeran, his label Warner Music Group and his music publisher Sony Music Publishing, claiming infringement of their copyright interest in the Gaye song. Kathryn Townsend Griffin, Townsend’s daughter, said she had to protect her “father’s legacy”.
Sheeran and Wadge, both testified during the trial that they did not copy Let’s Get It On. Sheeran said he had only passing familiarity with the song and that Thinking Out Loud was inspired by Irish musician Van Morrison.
A video was shown of Sheeran merging the two songs on stage. “If I had done what you’re accusing me of doing I’d be quite an idiot to stand on stage in front of 25,000 people,” he argued.
The singer is also facing claims over Thinking Out Loud in the same court from a company owned by investment banker David Pullman that holds copyright interests in the Gaye song.
Sheeran won a trial in London last year in a separate copyright case over his hit Shape of You.
Gaye’s heirs in 2015 won a $5.3m judgment from a lawsuit claiming the Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams song Blurred Lines copied Gaye’s Got to Give It Up.
The singer is the subject of a new Disney+ documentary docuseries Ed Sheeran: The Sum of It All which premiered earlier this week. In a promotional interview on CBS he revealed that he missed his grandmother’s funeral as a result of the trial.
“These trials take a significant toll on everyone involved,” he added outside court today.
This Friday sees the release of Sheeran’s fifth studio album, Subtract. To date, he has sold more than 150m records, making him one of the biggest-selling artists of all time.
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