'Very happy' Ed Sheeran wins US copyright trial
British pop phenom Ed Sheeran expressed joy and relief Thursday after a US jury found he did not plagiarize Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" in composing his hit "Thinking Out Loud," and called the ruling good news for creative freedom.
The English musician stood and hugged his team inside a Manhattan federal courtroom after jurors ruled that he had "independently" created his 2014 song.
Outside, he told reporters he was "very happy" but "unbelievably frustrated that baseless claims like this" even make it to trial.
The civil lawsuit was filed by heirs of Gaye co-writer Ed Townsend, who alleged that harmonic progressions and rhythmic elements of Sheeran's song were lifted without permission from the classic made famous by Gaye.
The heirs sought a share of the profits from Sheeran's hit tune.
"If the jury had decided this matter the other way, we might as well say goodbye to the creative freedom of songwriters," Sheeran told reporters outside the court.
"It is devastating and also insulting to be accused of stealing other people's songs when we put so much into our livelihoods," he added. "I am just a guy with a guitar who loves writing music for people to enjoy."
"I am not and will never allow myself to be a piggy bank for anyone to shake."
- 'Songwriter's alphabet' -
The jurors spent some three hours deliberating whether Sheeran's song and Gaye's classic are substantially similar and if their common elements are protected by copyright law.
Sheeran, 32, spent days testifying with guitar in hand, playing demos for the court to prove the 1-3-4-5 chord progression that was in question is a basic building block of pop music that can't be owned.
The English musician testified that he writes most of his songs in a day, and noted that he co-wrote "Thinking Out Loud" with singer-songwriter Amy Wadge, a regular creative collaborator.
The pair wrote "Thinking Out Loud" at Sheeran's home in February 2014, he said.
A musicologist retained by the defense told the court that the four-chord sequence in question was used in a number of songs before Gaye's hit came out in 1973.
"These chords are common building blocks," Sheeran said Thursday. "They are a songwriter's 'alphabet', our tool kit."
"No one owns them, or the way they are played, in the same way nobody owns the color blue."
Plaintiff Kathryn Townsend Griffin left court and breezed by reporters smoking what appeared to be a cigarillo, saying only: "God is good all the time, all the time God is good."
- 'Sanity prevailed' -
Industry members closely followed the copyright lawsuit as some feared it could chill songwriters' creativity and open the door to legal challenges elsewhere.
It was the second trial in a year for Sheeran, who successfully testified at a London court last April in a case centered around his song "Shape Of You," saying that the lawsuit was emblematic of copyright litigation going too far.
The judge also ruled in his favor in that case.
Sheeran's "Thinking Out Loud" shot up America's Billboard Hot 100 charts when it was released, and won Sheeran a Song of the Year prize at the Grammys in 2016.
There have been a handful of landmark music copyright cases in recent years, notably in 2016 when Gaye's family -- who was not part of the New York lawsuit against Sheeran -- successfully sued the artists Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams over similarities between the song "Blurred Lines" and Gaye's "Got to Give it Up."
The result surprised many in the industry, including legal experts, who considered many of the musical components cited as foundational, and existing largely in the public domain.
Shortly thereafter, an appeals court decision confirmed Led Zeppelin's victory over a similar case focused on the classic "Stairway to Heaven" -- a boon for songwriters.
The swinging pendulum has left some songwriters fearful of the volatility of opinions from jurors who almost certainly do not have a background in musicology and must rely on expert witnesses for context.
After delivering the verdict, juror Sophia Neis told journalists it took a beat for all seven members to find common ground.
"There was a lot of back and forth" with advocates on both sides, the 23-year-old said.
Joe Bennett, a forensic musicologist at the prestigious Berklee College of Music, told AFP in the wake of the verdict that he was "delighted to learn... sanity prevailed."
"In music copyright litigation cases involving one or two bars of music, the plaintiff's allegation of plagiarism is almost always wrong," he said. "Coincidental similarity happens all the time, particularly with chords and short melodic fragments."
"Hopefully this sensible verdict will discourage other spurious complaints like this in the future."