On May 4, 2023, the outcome of a trial may have ended the career of one of the world’s most popular singer/songwriters. The verdict in Ed Sheeran’s (“Sheeran”) latest copyright case was decided by a jury and is being read. Earlier in the week, Sheeran testified, in his latest copyright case, that if he loses this trial, “I’m done. I’m stopping. I find it really insulting to work my whole life as a singer-songwriter and diminish it now.”[1] On May 4, 2023, the jury returned a verdict in favor of Sheeran, and the next day, Ed Sheeran’s sixth studio album, “Subtract”, was released.

Sheeran is no stranger to copyright infringement accusations, and even his newest album could fall victim to accusations. As a highly successful and popular singer/songwriter, Sheeran has been involved with multiple cases raising questions about the use of musical elements, such as melodies and chord progressions. Sheeran has implemented these elements into his songs and now the question emerges of the proprietary nature of musical elements and whether they are original or borrowed from other existing works. This is a relevant and timely issue in intellectual property law and will only grow as more artists encounter accusations and similar hurdles. This article details the multitude of lawsuits that artists, specifically Ed Sheeran, face when distributing their music.

“Let’s Get It On” Infringement Suit

Of Ed Sheeran’s catalog, three of his most popular songs have been subject to copyright infringement accusations and lawsuits. This makes one wonder where the line between original music and existing music stands. The most recent of Sheeran’s copyright infringement cases involved his song “Thinking Out Loud”, released in 2014 on his album, “Multiply” (“x”), and Marvin Gaye’s 1963 hit “Let’s Get It On”.

Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” was written by Sheeran, Amy Wadge, and Julian Williams and went on to win the Grammy Awards for Song of the Year and Best Pop Solo Performance at the 58th Annual Grammy Awards.[2] Over 50 years before the hit “Thinking Out Loud,” Marvin Gaye was performing the hit “Let’s Get It On,” which he wrote with Ed Townsend. Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” became number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart on September 8, 1973.[3]

Fast forward to 2016 when the estate of Ed Townsend, the co-writer of “Let’s Get It On,” sued Sheeran alleging “Thinking Out Loud” copied elements of “Let’s Get It On,” including the melody, harmony, and rhythm. In 2019, the case went to trial. During the trial, Townsend’s estate showed a video in which Sheeran performed a seamless medley of “Thinking Out Loud” and “Let’s Get It On” at a European concert.[4]

However, Sheeran and his legal team rebutted the video and Townsend’s arguments, attempting to demonstrate that similarities between the two songs were not intentional, but due to common musical elements and chord progressions. Sheeran testified in the case, demonstrating the commonality of the chord progressions between the two songs with the use of an acoustic guitar.[5] He then demonstrated the difference between the two songs such as specific chords being major in “Thinking Out Loud,” compared to the minor ones in “Let’s Get It On.”

Ultimately, the jury agreed with Sheeran, finding that Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud” did not infringe the copyright of Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.” This trial highlighted the complex and subjective nature of copyright infringement cases in the music industry. It also underscored the importance of a songwriter’s attention to detail when composing music. Overall, the case brought forth the need for a nuanced approach to copyright law with respect to the creative nature of music and the balance of the interests of artists and copyright holders.

Although, the most recent infringement case Sheeran has been a part of, this is not the only one.

Sheeran’s additional accusations of infringement

Also from “x”, another of Sheeran’s popular songs, “Photograph,” was subject to copyright infringement accusations. Although significantly less popular than Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” “Amazing” written by Martin Harrington and Thomas Leonard was the alleged copyright infringed song. However, like Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” Martin Harrington and Thomas Leonard alleged that the melody and chord progressions of “Photograph” were significantly like that of “Amazing.”

Unlike “Thinking Out Loud”, the case involving Sheeran’s “Photograph” did not make it to trial. It was settled out of court in 2017.

Again, Sheeran’s 2017 hit, “Shape of You,” was the center of yet another lawsuit involving alleged copyright infringement of Sheeran’s songwriting. In 2018, the lawsuit alleged that Sheeran copied parts of “Shape of You” from “No Scrubs”, a popular 1990’s song written by the members of R&B group, TLC.

Like the “Photograph” suit, this one did not go to trial. It was settled out of court and, this time, Sheeran agreed to include the names of the “No Scrubs” songwriters to the credits of “Shape of You.”

Other High-Profile Copyright Music Cases

Sheeran is not the only popular musical artist to deal with copyright infringement issues. Other examples include Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.”

In 2015, Pharrell Williams’ and Robin Thicke’s popular, but also controversial in their own right, “Blurred Lines” was the focal point of a lawsuit involving Marvin Gaye’s family. Gaye’s family alleged that Williams and Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” borrowed heavily from Gaye’s hit “Got to Give It Up”. This case did go to trial and a jury found that Williams and Thicke had infringed on Gaye’s copyright and awarded the Gaye family $7.4 million in damages.

Led Zeppelin’s hit, “Stairway to Heaven,” was involved in a suit by the estate of Randy Wolfe, the late guitarist of the band Spirit. Wolfe’s estate alleged that “Stairway to Heaven” was copied from Spirit’s song “Taurus.” A jury ultimately found that Led Zeppelin did not infringe on Spirit’s copyright.

All the cases discussed above highlight the complexities of copyright law when it comes to music. Attention to detail is necessary when creating music as small similarities between two songs may lead to accusations, lawsuits, and the legal system determining where the line between inspiration and infringement lies.

Sheeran is one of the most popular and notable singer/songwriters of today. These infringement accusations against Sheeran demonstrate that even when musical artists should be celebrating their accomplishments, they are not above accusations of infringement and must pay close attention when composing and writing their music to minimize potential accusations. Again, as music and copyright infringement law evolve so does the landscape of intellectual property and the nuance of the laws that surround it.

[1] Curto, Justin, Vulture, Ed Sheeran Says He’s ‘Done’ If He Loses Copyright Trial, https://www.vulture.com/2023/05/ed-sheeran-might-quit-music-copyright-trial.html, May 2, 2023, last visited on May 12, 2023.

[2] The Recording Academy, https://www.grammy.com/artists/ed-sheeran/6178, last visited on May 12, 2023.

[3]Billboard, https://www.billboard.com/charts/hot-100/1973-09-08/, last visited on May 12, 2023.

[4]Sisario, Ben, New York Times, Ed Sheeran Wins Copyright Case over Marvin Gaye’s ‘Let’s Get It On’, https://www.nytimes.com/2023/05/04/arts/music/ed-sheeran-marvin-gaye-copyright-trial-verdict.html, May 4, 2023, last visited on May 12, 2023.

[5] Id.