A copyright infringement case against British pop artist Ed Sheeran is set to kick off this week, with the potential to further complicate the legal landscape for songwriters.
The jury was selected Monday in the case against Sheeran, who is accused of copying the 1973 soul hit “Let’s Get It On” by the heirs of Ed Townsend, who co-wrote the song with Marvin Gaye.
Jurors will return to Manhattan federal court Tuesday morning when opening statements in the trial are expected to begin. Sheeran is also expected to testify in the trial.
The trial concerns Sheeran’s song “Thinking Out Loud,” which won the 2016 Grammy award for song of the year. “The Defendants copied the ‘heart’ of ‘Let’s’ and repeated it continuously throughout ‘Thinking,’” the lawsuit claims. It alleges there are “melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic compositions” in the two songs that are “substantially and/or strikingly similar.”
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.
In legal filings, Sheeran’s lawyers have argued that “the alleged similarities between the two songs are actually not similar and that any remaining similarities consist of unprotectable musical elements.”
Lawsuits such as the one filed by Gaye’s family have become increasingly common in the music industry over the past few 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 favour 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.”