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Ed Sheeran has dire outlook on music career if jurors think he copied R&B classic ‘Let’s Get It On’


Left: Attorney Benjamin Crump, right leaves Manhattan federal court with Kathryn Townsend Griffin, daughter of singer and songwriter Ed Townsend, Tuesday, April 25, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer). Right: Ed Sheeran leaves Manhattan federal court, Tuesday, April 25, 2023, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

The music industry is closely following the outcome of the copyright infringement case against Ed Sheeran, which is now in the hands of the jury.

The case was filed in 2017 in the Southern District of New York by the estate of Ed Townsend, who co-wrote the R&B classic “Let’s Get It On” with Marvin Gaye. The estate, led by Townsend’s daughter Kathryn Townsend Griffin, claims that Sheeran copied the essential elements of “Let’s Get It On” when Sheeran wrote his chart-topping song, “Thinking Out Loud.”

After multiple delays, the case finally moved forward last week after a jury of four woman and three men was finally selected.

U.S. District Judge Louis Stanton is presiding over the case. A Ronald Reagan appointee, he is quiet and thoughtful, but when he speaks he is decisive and well-respected — attorneys on both sides of the case have shown complete deference to him. At 95 years old, the graduate of Yale University and the University of Virginia Law School is witty, but he has maintained complete control of the courtroom throughout the trial.

Townsend Griffin was the first witness to take the stand. She said that the heart of her father’s song was misappropriated and that before he died, she promised to protect his rights.

Plaintiffs then called Ed Sheeran to the stand. Sheeran denied copying any parts of “Let’s Get It On” and he explained how he co-wrote the song with his long time friend Amy Madge. He said they were inspired by their own aging family members, including Sheeran’s grandparents.

Musicologist Dr. Alexander Stewart also testified for the plaintiffs. He addressed whether the musical recording of “Thinking Out Loud” was copied from the sheet music for “Let’s Get It On,” which was filed with the Copyright Office. Notably, the sheet music does not encompass the entire recording — it only contains the chords, lyrics, and vocal melody of the song. Stewart claimed that Sheeran copied 70% of the song, while Sheeran’s defense countered that he copied 0% of the song.

While Stewart was on the stand, plaintiffs played Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” for the jury and compared it to an AI version of “Let’s Get It On.” Plaintiffs could not actually play the recording of “Let’s Get It On” because only the contents of the sheet music were copyrighted and subject to protection. That limited content was re-created using AI and played to the jury. As the song was playing, spectators in the courtroom audibly chuckled.

Townsend Griffin spoke to Law&Crime after the AI rendition of “Let’s Get it On” was played for the jury. She said the AI version sounded “disrespectful.”

At one point during the trial, Townsend Griffin collapsed from a medical emergency. When she returned to the courtroom the following Monday, Sheeran approached plaintiffs’ table and hugged Townsend Griffin. She smiled, said thank you, and responded with a hug.

Before they rested their case, plaintiffs called Stuart Camp, Sheeran’s manager, to introduce various emails between Camp and Sheeran. They were not successful in introducing the emails based on prior rulings from the judge, who admonished attorney Ben Crump for attempting to introduce the emails.

The defense began its case by calling Ed Sheeran back to the stand. Sheeran reiterated that Dr. Stewart was wrong when he said that the notes in the first 24 seconds of “Thinking Out Loud” were the same as “Let’s Get It On.” Sheeran said both songs, along with many others, have similar chord progressions.

At times during both his direct, and especially during his cross examination, Sheeran became visibly frustrated and said that Stewart’s mischaracterization of his music was “criminal.”

Ed Sheeran plays his guitar on the witness stand during his testimony with Judge Louis Stanton presiding, Monday, May 1, 2023 in Manhattan federal court. Sheeran continued testifying, Monday, to deny allegations that his hit song “Thinking Out Loud” ripped off Marvin Gaye’s soul classic “Let’s Get It On.” (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

Sheeran picked up his guitar several times and played parts of various songs with the same chord progressions including “Crazy Love” by Van Morrison, which was recorded before “Let’s Get it On.” Sheeran said that Van Morrison was one of his greatest influences.

The defense also called Jake Gosling, Sheeran’s producer, and “Thinking Out Loud” co-writer Amy Wadge, who confirmed Sheeran’s testimony about the origins of the song.

The defense ended its case with testimony from well-known musicologist Dr. Lawrence Ferrara, who has successfully defended a number of famous copyright infringement cases, including cases against hip-hop groups Macklemore and Ryan Lewis and the Beastie Boys. Ferrara said there was no musicological evidence that Ed Sheeran’s song “Thinking Out Loud” copied the chords from “Let’s Get It On.”

Ferrara also testified that he conducted independent research and found 101 songs with the same chord progressions as “Let’s Get it On” and “Thinking Out Loud.” He said 33 of those songs were published before “Let’s Get It On.” Ferrara also said the harmonic rhythm of the two songs were different, in stark contrast to Dr. Stewart, who had said they were the same.

Finally, Ferrara opined that the opening melody at issue in “Let’s Get It On” was indeed “dramatically different” from that of “Thinking Out Loud.”

Sheeran attended every day of trial, despite the recent passing of his grandmother, for whom he wrote the song “Nancy Mulligan” in 2017. She was laid to rest on Wednesday while he continued to defend the copyright infringement case against him.

The outcome of this case is expected to have a huge impact on both the music industry — as well as Ed Sheeran personally.

At the end of his direct examination, Sheeran said if he lost this case: “I’m done … I’m stopping.”

Attorney Ilene Farkas delivered closing arguments for the defense. She said “Thinking Out Loud” was independently created and used common chord progressions and rhythms, also known as anticipations. Both elements were used before and after “Let’s Get It On” was released, she argued. Judge Stanton had previously ruled that the chord progressions and the anticipations were commonplace and therefore not subject to protection — two rulings that favored Sheeran.

Farkas ended by saying that the case should never have been brought, and that if plaintiffs won, “creativity would be stifled for fear of being sued.”

Attorneys Crump and Keisha Rice closed for the plaintiffs. Rice said “Let’s Get It On” was a unique combination of elements like melody, harmony, and syncopated rhythm, and that Sheeran copied those elements. Crump, known for taking on high-profile civil rights cases, said the case about “giving credit where credit is due.”

After closing arguments, Judge Stanton instructed the jury that in order to find in favor of the Townsend estate, the plaintiffs must have proven that Sheeran wrongly copied “Let’s Get It On.” He also instructed the jury that if Sheeran had shown that he independently created “Thinking Out Loud,” it would be a complete defense. The judge told the jurors that any jury must be unanimous.

The jury began deliberating on Wednesday at 5:10 pm and returned 10 minutes later to break for the day. They returned to court Thursday morning.

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Terri Austin is a legal analyst who appears on a number of networks including Law and Crime, Fox News, Cheddar TV, Black News Channel, and Canadian TV. Formerly a trial attorney for Richards & O’Neil and the NYC Law Department, an Adjunct Professor at the University of Southern California, Chief Corporate Policy Officer for S&P Global, and General Counsel for AIG Domestic Claims. Terri is an honored recipient of The Network Journal’s 25 Influential Black Women in Business in 2008, and Top Diversity Executive by Black Enterprise in 2011. She is a member of the New York City Bar Association and actively serves on a number of non-profit boards. Terri holds a BA in political science from Grinnell College, a JD from Columbia University School of Law, and a MS from Columbia School of Journalism.