The heirs of Ed Townsend—the songwriter and producer who co-wrote Marvin Gaye’s classic record “Let’s Get It On”—are suing Ed Sheeran for copyright infringement for allegedly copying core aspects of the R&B classic for his chart-topping track “Thinking Out Loud.” The Townsend estate, including his daughter, Kathryn Townsend Griffin, sister Helen McDonald, and the estate of his former wife, Cherrigale Townsend, are seeking $100 million in damages, according to BBC. It’s also been reported that investment banker David Pullman and Structured Asset Sales, which has acquired a portion of Townsend’s estate and are the “beneficial owner of the song’s copyright” according to the legal filing, are also involved in the lawsuit. The Gaye family is not involved in the case.
The suit alleges that Sheeran copied the same chord progression as Gaye and Townsend’s song, but while the progression of both tracks is nearly identical, a musicologist retained by Sheeran’s defense team called the two chord sequences “virtually interchangeable.”
The trial began on Monday, April 24, following jury selection, but the lawsuit was initially filed in 2017. The case has faced several setbacks since it was first filed, including Sheeran trying to have the case dismissed, COVID-19 delaying it further, and recently, a new batch of jurors being selected after the previous few were exposed as being fans of the British singer, thus putting the integrity of the jury in jeopardy.
This isn’t the first time Ed Sheeran has been sued over accusations of copying the blueprint of another song. In 2017, Sheeran settled a $20 million copyright infringement lawsuit that was filed by two artists who claimed that his song “The Photograph” copied 39 notes from their song “Amazing.” The case was dismissed “with prejudice” in a California court.
Sheeran was unable to dismiss this new case in the same way, and the singer made his first court appearance. With the case set to get underway and settled within the week, here’s a timeline of everything that has happened thus far.
2014: Ed Sheeran Releases “Thinking Out Loud”
“Thinking Out Loud” is the third single on Ed Sheeran’s 2014 album X and is one of the singer’s earliest top-charting songs, debuting at No. 1 on the UK chart, becoming his second No. 1 record, and would go on to win two Grammys for Song of the Year and Best Solo Pop Performance in 2017. The song is currently 12 times platinum in the United States.
2017: The Estate of Ed Townsend Sues Ed Sheeran for Copyright Infringement
The lawsuit against Sheeran was initially filed in 2017 by Ed Townsend’s daughter, sister, and the estate of his ex-wife. According to the court filings in 2017, families lawyers cited that “The Defendants copied the ‘heart’ of ‘Let’s’ and repeated it continuously throughout ‘Thinkin.’ The melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic compositions of ‘Thinking’ are substantially and/or strikingly similar to the drum composition of ‘Let’s.’”
Sheeran immediately tried to get the case dismissed, with his lawyers responding that “the alleged similarities between the two songs are actually not similar and that any remaining similarities consist of unprotectable musical elements.” While Gaye’s estate is not involved in the case, they notably won in a copyright infringement case very similar to this one in 2015, when Robin Thicke and Pharrell were ordered to pay over $7 million in damages after a court found them guilty of copying aspects of Gaye’s song “Got to Give It Up” on their song “Blurred Lines.” The ruling was unprecedented at the time, and what gives this new lawsuit against Sheeran basis.
2019: Trial Put on Hold By Judge
In 2019, Judge Louis L. Stanton delayed the trial because he wanted to wait for the resolution to a similar copyright infringement case against Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven.” Zeppelin would go on to win their case, and it was found that they did not infringe on Spirit’s 1968 song “Taurus.” The case was originally set to commence following those results.
March 2020: Trial Delayed Again Due to COVID-19
Just after the Zeppelin case was resolved, the COVID-19 pandemic hit the globe, forcing the trial to be delayed yet again. Despite the results of the Zeppelin copyright infringement case, Stanton still did not accept Sheeran’s request to drop the case and continued to bring it to trial.
April 23, 2023: Seven Jurors Dropped Right Before Trial Begins
The week the trial was set to begin, it was revealed that seven of the 14 jurors selected to participate were either Ed Sheeran fans or involved in the music industry and thus had to be dropped. According to the New York Post, among the jurors dropped, one was a music history teacher at Columbia University and another a former music industry worker. One told the judge that she had “two teenage daughters who love Ed Sheeran,” and a pregnant juror who said that she walked down the aisle during her wedding to Sheeran’s song “Perfect” and would need constant breaks due to her pregnancy, prompting the judge to drop her.
The trial began on April 24 with Sheeran making his first court appearance and testifying the following day. In court, Sheeran said that he wrote the song based on his own experiences. “Yes, Amy Wadge and I wrote the song ‘Thinking Out Loud,’” Sheeran testified.
April 27, 2023: Ed Sheeran Performs “Thinking Out Loud” in Court
Shortly after Sheeran arrived at the Manhattan courtroom last week, the singer performed the key progression from “Thinking Out Loud” that is in question on the witness stand. According to The Guardian, Sheeran testified for nearly an hour, telling the court, “When I write vocal melodies, it’s like phonetics,” before picking up his guitar and playing the opening notes of the song as well as singing the first line.
Earlier this week, the Townsend estate attorneys played a video of Sheeran performing “Thinking Out Loud” and “Let’s Get It On” side-by-side to try and prove that the singer stole the former. Sheeran responded to this claim by saying: “Most pop songs can fit over most pop songs … if I had done what you’re accusing me of doing, I’d be a quite an idiot to stand on a stage in front of 20,000 people and do that.”
May 1, 2023: Sheeran Says He’s “Done” With Music If Found Guilty
Things got dramatic during the second week of the trial between Ed Sheeran and the Townsend estate, as the singer told the courtroom that he would be “done” with music if found guilty. “If that happens, I’m done—I’m stopping,” Sheeran said in a Manhattan courtroom on Monday. “I find it really insulting to work my whole life as a singer-songwriter and diminish it,”as noted in a New York Post report.
The verdict of the case is expected to be revealed in the coming days.