We’ve all heard Ed Sheeran’s catchy tunes and recognize him as one of the most successful musicians of our time. However, recent events have led to controversy surrounding one of his biggest hits, “Thinking Out Loud,” as it has been accused of copying Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”
The Ed Sheeran court case between the two artists has come to a verdict, and we’re here to give you all the details.
The lawsuit was filed by Kathryn Griffin Townsend, one ofthe heirs of Gaye’s co-composer Ed Townsend. Griffin, among other heirs, accused Sheeran of copying Marvin Gaye (and Gaye’s co writer Ed Townsend)song “Lets Get it On.” The lawsuit seeks damages of up to $100 million.”
The chord patterns in both songs and the track by Mr. Sheeran, share a similar syncopated structure. The family of Townsend, argued that this chord progression was the “heart” of “Let’s Get It On.”
Mr. Sheeran and his legal team acknowledged the similarities between the two songs’ chords, but countered that chord progressions are a common feature in many other musical compositions.
A Manhattan federal court jury found Ed Sheeran was found not guilty of copyright infringement. The verdict was announced on May 4th, 2023, by a jury in Los Angeles, after a lengthy legal battle that had been closely watched by fans and industry insiders alike.
After the trial, Ed Sheeran was found huging his attorney and co writer Amy Wadge.
During the trial, Ed Sheeran took the stand in his own defense. He described himself as just a guy who loves to write pop songs .
Music experts were called in to analyze the similarities and differences between the two songs. The experts determined that there were significant similarities in the bass lines and harmonic progressions of both songs.
These similarities were apparent to the jury, who ultimately decided in favor of Ed Sheeran.
Listen for yourself: Here are the 2 songs at the center of Ed Sheeran’s copyright case
Here is a YouTube video of Ed Sheeran singing his hit “Thinking out loud” and “Lets Get it On” by Marvin Gaye. Does it look like copycat?
The judge asked the jury to consider two contradictory tales in his case. The plaintiffs argued that the chords were similar and that some of the songs had similarities.
Ed Sheeran’s lawyers argued that the melody is different and that all the music elements in either song were used in popular culture.
In the end, a jury found that “Thinking Out Loud” was independent song.
While the Ed Sheeran court case seems to have reaffirmed the general rule that chord progressions are not copyrightable, it also serves as a reminder that artists must be diligent in ensuring their work is original and not an imitation of someone else’s creative expression.
Are Chord Progressions Copyrightable?
The general rule is that common chord progressions are not copyrightable. (See, e.g., Johnson v. Gordon, 409 F.3d 12, 23 (1st Cir.2005) (finding III, II chord progression to be a “stereotypical building block of music composition” and thus “unprotectable”).
However, some courts have found that a chord progression can be intertwined with rhythm and pitch to create something unique enough to qualify for copyright protection (Swirsky v. Carey, 376 F.3d 841, 848 (9th Cir.2004) (finding that “although chord progressions may not be individually protected,” they could combine with rhythm and pitch to support a finding of infringement). The Swirsky case, and others like it, likely form the basis of Townsend’s daughter’s argument.
However, Townsend’s legal theory–if she prevailed–would have had dangerous implications for song writing.
In virtually every musical genre, there is a great deal of similarity. Jazz musicians, for example, spend a great deal of time transcribing other jazz musicians to learn the jazz language and assimilate it into their playing. Oftentimes, you can hear the jazz language of the soloist’s influences in their playing.
Similarly, most pop songs rely on similar beats, drum sounds, similar chords as elements help them achieve unique artistic expression.
Given that there are a finite number of possible chord progressions that can be constructed from the same 12 notes available, the ability to copyright a chord progress would have a detrimental effect on musical creation.
Furthermore, the goal of copyright law is to promote creativity and innovation, not hinder it. Allowing copyright protection for chord progressions would limit the ability of musicians and composers to draw inspiration from existing works and create new music.
It could also lead to legal disputes over unintentional similarities between different songs. Instead, the law allows for fair use and encourages artists to build on each other’s work.
As a result, chord progressions remain a fundamental element of music that are freely available for anyone to use and incorporate into their own compositions.
Simply put, it is better for all of us if chord progressions stay in the public domain.
In conclusion, the verdict of the copyright infringement case between Ed Sheeran and Marvin Gaye’s estate is a significant moment for the music industry.
The decision serves as a warning to all artists that they must be mindful of their creative output and ensure it is entirely original. This ruling will undoubtedly make songwriters think twice before releasing a new song to the public.