6 Takeaways From Ed Sheeran’s ‘Let’s Get It On’ Copyright Case

The pop star was found not liable for copying Marvin Gaye’s 1973 classic for his own “Thinking Out Loud” in the music industry’s highest-profile copyright case in years.

Ed Sheeran spoke to reporters outside a Manhattan courthouse after a jury found that he and a co-writer had not copied a Marvin Gaye song for his own “Thinking Out Loud.”Credit…Alexi J. Rosenfeld/Getty Images

The music world turned its eyes to a federal courthouse in Manhattan over the last two weeks, where Ed Sheeran defended himself against an accusation that his 2014 hit “Thinking Out Loud” copied from Marvin Gaye’s classic “Let’s Get It On.”

On Thursday, Sheeran emerged victorious, with a jury finding that he and his co-writer, Amy Wadge, had created their song independently.

Here are scenes from inside the courtroom, and takeaways from the case.

An opinion piece in The Washington Post called the lawsuit “a threat to Western civilization.” Sheeran’s lawyers were less hyperbolic but still argued that a loss would have a devastating impact on songwriters by privatizing parts of the public domain.“Creativity would be stifled for fear of being sued,” Ilene S. Farkas said in her closing statement.

Sheeran’s win means that music’s wider legal landscape remains largely undisturbed. After the shock of the “Blurred Lines” verdict in 2015, in which Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were ordered to pay more than $5 million to Gaye’s family — a case that many experts felt was wrongly decided — Led Zeppelin prevailed in a suit involving “Stairway to Heaven,” sending the pendulum back to a more neutral position.

As Sheeran’s lawyers said repeatedly, what the singer was accused of copying included a stock chord progression and syncopated rhythmic pattern. Those elements are so generic that the judge in the case, Louis L. Stanton, stipulated they were not protected by copyright.

The plaintiffs (the family of Gaye’s co-writer, Ed Townsend) needed to prove that the combination of those elements — their “selection and arrangement” — was original enough to warrant protection. In general, courts place a high bar on such claims. ‌Ultimately, the jury decided that “Thinking Out Loud” was created independently, and never addressed whether those aspects of “Let’s Get It On” were protected.

Although “Thinking Out Loud” was played a number of times, jurors never heard Marvin Gaye’s beloved, luxuriously sung recording of “Let’s Get It On.” That is because its songwriting copyright is limited to the minimal sheet music that was supplied to the Copyright Office in 1973.

Instead, the jury heard a computerized “Let’s Get It On,” based on the original sheet music. It was a cold and disembodied performance, complete with a robotic vocal that sounded as if it were coming from a Speak & Spell toy — a bizarre interpretation for one of the most erotic songs of all time.

Sheeran attended every day of testimony in the trial, and on the stand he could be charming, demonstrating his songwriting with a guitar. He recounted his determination as a 17-year-old aspiring musician to play every open-mic night in London, and said he writes as many as eight or nine songs a day.

But Sheeran, 32, was also at times belligerent and angry. He attacked the testimony of Alexander Stewart, a musicologist testifying for the plaintiffs, as “criminal.” Under cross-examination, he interrupted Patrick R. Frank, a lawyer for the plaintiffs who questioned Sheeran’s testimony about the chords he played, challenging him, “Do you believe this?”

A key part of any music copyright trial is the testimony of musicologists hired as expert witnesses for each side, who present dry, abstract analyses of the music.

At the Sheeran trial, the two experts also seemed to take every opportunity to put each other down. Stewart, a professor at the University of Vermont, portrayed his counterpart, Lawrence Ferrara of New York University, as struggling to find persuasive “prior art” — citations from music history that would undermine the originality of “Let’s Get It On.”

Ferrara fired back. He dismissed Stewart’s estimate that 70 percent of “Thinking Out Loud” had been taken from “Let’s Get It On” as “ridiculous” and “outlandish.” Stewart’s hypothesis that Sheeran had mimicked some of Gaye’s melodies, Ferrara said, was, “to be perfectly honest, absurd.” Other conclusions by Stewart were “farcical” and “ludicrous,” Ferrara said. For musicologists, these were fireworks.

Inside the courtroom, the case was all about chords, rhythms and the fine points of copyright law. But outside, the discourse also involved the history of racial exploitation in the music industry.

In public statements leading up to the trial, Ben Crump, the civil rights lawyer who was part of the plaintiffs’ team, defined the dispute squarely in racial terms. “Mr. Sheeran blatantly took a Black artist’s music who he doesn’t view as worthy of compensation,” he said at a news conference in March.

In a letter to the judge a week before the trial began, Donald S. Zakarin, one of Sheeran’s lawyers, wrote: “We respect Mr. Crump’s right to raise institutional concerns he may believe exist, but not in this case and not in this forum.”

Judge Stanton never publicly responded to that request. But in Crump’s closing statement, he never mentioned race.

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