A court has ruled that the British musician did not copy a Marvin Gaye song when he wrote the 2014 hit Thinking Out Loud. What does the verdict mean for the music industry?
They are two love songs for two different moods.
Marvin Gaye’s 1963 hit Let’s Get It On is a song about the heights of sexual passion, whereas Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud, released 40 years later, is an ode to a love that lasts a lifetime.
Both songs are enormously popular: Let’s Get It On has been played 258 million times on Spotify, Thinking Out Loud 2.2 billion times.
The two songs happily coexist in countless playlists. But in the past few years, they have been on either side of a fierce court battle.
In 2016, the heirs of Ed Townsend, who co-wrote the Marvin Gaye song, brought a lawsuit against Ed Sheeran. It alleged that Sheeran copied the song’s chord progression, or the musical building blocks.
The two-week trial was a barnstormer.
The singer pulled out all the stops in his defence, playing guitar to the courtroom to show the differences between his song and Marvin Gaye’s.
Countless pop songs use the same four chords, he pointed out.
In the end a jury ruled that Ed Sheeran, who missed his grandmother’s funeral to be in court, did not copy Let’s Get It On.
It is a verdict that matters for the music world.
A decade ago the industry was rocked by another copyright case, in which Gaye’s family argued that the feeling of the 2013 song Blurred Lines resembled the song Got to Give It Up.
Gaye’s family won the case. But many experts criticised the verdict, warning that it would have a chilling effect on musicians, who might start to fear even taking inspiration from other songs.
If the Blurred Lines case lowered the bar for copyright infringement, the Ed Sheeran case has, for now, stopped it from going any lower.
But there are more battles ahead.
Ed Sheeran is facing a separate copyright claim over Thinking Out Loud from a company owned by the investment banker David Pullman, which owns a third of the rights to Let’s Get It On.
As venture capitalists increasingly buy up musicians’ back catalogues, expect to see more cases like this one.