Did Ed Sheeran copy Marvin Gaye? Singer breaks out guitar in court defence

Ed Sheeran testified in court again on April 27, 2023, in a copyright lawsuit over alleged similarities between Marvin Gaye's 'Let's Get It On' and Sheeran's 'Thinking Out Loud.'. Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Singer Ed Sheeran is used to performing in sold-out stadiums, but he traded that in on Thursday when he briefly played for a packed New York courtroom in an ongoing copyright lawsuit over Marvin Gaye’s soul classic Let’s Get It On.

Sheeran, the first witness in his own defence, testified for about an hour and performed a fragment of his hit song in question, Thinking Out Loud. 

Sheeran has been in court this week as part of a lawsuit filed in 2017 by the heirs of a Let’s Get It On co-writer, Ed Townsend, who created the soulful song alongside Gaye. The lawsuit claims Sheeran, 32, and his co-writer, Amy Wadge, knowingly plagiarized the song’s iconic four-chord sequence.

Sheeran has staunchly denied that he copied or was influenced by Let’s Get It On.

On the stand, Sheeran discussed his songwriting process, which he said is inspired by his real life. He said Thinking Out Loud was written about the lifelong love between his grandparents, his grandfather’s then-recent death and a blooming romantic relationship of his own.

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Sheeran said he and Wadge wrote the song collaboratively while she visited his home in England. He testified that while Wadge was strumming chords, he sang the brainstormed line “I’m singing out now,” which would eventually become “I’m thinking out loud,” in the song’s chorus.

“When I write vocal melodies, it’s like phonetics,” he said.

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Sheeran then retrieved an acoustic guitar from behind the witness stand and strummed the chords to Thinking Out Loud. He sang the opening lyrics, “When your legs don’t work like they used to.” The Associated Press reported the short musical outbreak brought smiles to people watching in the gallery.

“And then words fall in,” Sheeran explained, adding that co-writer Wadge developed the song’s opening chord progression.

He said songwriting came naturally to him and was often a quick, single-day process. Sheeran testified he could write up to nine songs in a single day.

Earlier in the trial, lawyers for the Townsend heirs showed the jury what they said was “a smoking gun” that proved Sheeran copied Let’s Get It On — a concert video of a live mashup performance in which he sang both songs. Townsend lawyer Ben Crump said the performance was “a confession” of plagiarism.

During his initial testimony on Tuesday, Sheeran denied the video is proof and said it is “quite simple to weave in and out of songs” if they are in the same key.

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“I’d be an idiot to stand on a stage in front of 20,000 people and do that,” Sheeran said of blatant plagiarism. “Most pop songs can fit over most pop songs.”

A musicologist called by the Townsend heirs testified on Wednesday that Thinking Out Loud and Let’s Get It On share striking similarities.

Let’s Get It On has been heard in countless films and commercials and garnered hundreds of millions of streams, spins and radio plays since it came out in 1973. Thinking Out Loud won a Grammy for Song of the Year in 2016.

Townsend, who also wrote the 1958 R&B doo-wop hit For Your Love, was a singer, songwriter and lawyer. He died in 2003. His daughter, Kathryn Townsend Griffin, is leading the lawsuit. She is suing alongside Townsend’s sister Helen McDonald and the estate of Ed Townsend’s ex-wife Cherrigale Townsend.

Click to play video: 'Woman suing Ed Sheeran for copyright infringement speaks outside courthouse'
Woman suing Ed Sheeran for copyright infringement speaks outside courthouse

“I think Mr. Sheeran is a great artist with a great future,” she said in her testimony, adding that she didn’t want it to get to this point. “But I have to protect my father’s legacy.”

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This trial comes one year after Sheeran won a similar copyright lawsuit over his biggest hit, Shape of You. At the time, Sheeran called the lawsuit “really damaging to the songwriting industry.”

Earlier in 2017, Sheeran settled out of court over claims that his song Photograph shared striking similarities to the Matt Cardle song Amazing. He has since said he regrets the settlement because it opened the “floodgates” for more bogus copyright claims.

The trial between Sheeran and the Townsend heirs is set to resume on Monday.

— With files from The Associated Press 

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