Ed Sheeran’s lawyers want a federal judge to rethink a recent decision that said the star must face a trial over whether “Thinking Out Loud” infringes Marvin Gaye‘s “Let’s Get It On,” warning that such rulings threaten to “strangle creation” by future songwriters.
Two weeks after Judge Louis Stanton refused to toss the case out, Sheeran’s attorneys respectfully told the judge Thursday (Oct. 13) that he was wrong – and that the only overlap between the two songs were simple musical elements that have “been used in music for centuries.”
“Affording copyright protection to a combination of only two unprotectable basic musical building blocks, such as the ones at issue here, would undermine a central purpose of copyright law – which is to encourage the creation of new works – and would instead strangle creation,” wrote Sheeran’s lead counsel Don Zakarin, an attorney at the firm Pryor Cashman.
In technical terms, Sheeran’s lawyers are asking the judge to reconsider his own ruling. If he does, it would be a rare step, typically only taken when it’s clear a judge has gotten something wrong. In the alternative, they’re asking for permission to file a fast-track appeal; if granted, it could delay any trial by at least a year.
Sheeran has long been dogged by questions of whether “Thinking Out Loud” (which spent 51 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 after it was released in 2014) borrowed too much from “Let’s Get It On.” He did himself no favors in late 2014, when he was filmed on stage at a concert toggling between the two songs.
The singer was hit with the current lawsuit in 2018 – filed not by Gaye’s heirs but by an entity owned by industry executive David Pullman called Structured Asset Sales. That group owns a one-third stake in the copyrights of Ed Townsend, who co-wrote “Let’s Get It On” with Gaye.
Faced with the accusations, Sheeran’s lawyers argued that the elements he allegedly took from the Gaye’s song – a chord progression and the harmonic rhythm – were too commonplace to be the exclusive property of any one songwriter. They cited a number of other songs, including “Since I Lost My Baby” by The Temptations, that featured similar aspects.
For their part, Sheeran’s accusers admit that those elements, by themselves, are “commonplace and unprotectable.” But they say that when they were combined together in Gaye’s famous song, they became something more original and worthy of copyright protection.
In late September, Judge Stanton refused to side with either argument. He said there was “no bright-line rule” for deciding such questions, and that the pop star would need to make his arguments before a jury of his peers. Notably, the judge separately also ruled that Sheeran’s concert profits would be fair game as damages if he’s found to have infringed “Let’s Get It On.”
The decision set the stage for a blockbuster trial at a Manhattan federal courthouse at some point in the future, though a date has not yet been set.
Thursday’s new motion, if granted, would avoid that trial entirely, or push it back if the judge approves the fast-track (“interlocutory”) appeal. In it, Sheeran’s attorneys argued that the court was correct about the lack of a “bright line,” but that the case against Sheeran still fell well short of the mark.
“No one can or should be able to claim the exclusive right to a chord progression and the unremarkable and unprotectable manner in which it is performed,” Sheeran’s lawyers wrote. “Defendants respectfully submit that the order overlooked these critically important legal considerations.”
In a statement to Billboard, Structured Asset Sales owner David Pullman said Sheeran’s efforts to overturn the ruling were simply “confirmation and validation of just how important this decision was” and that he “looks forward to more success in this case.”
The arguments from Sheeran’s lawyers sound quite a bit like comments the star himself has made about copyright litigation in the music industry. In April, after he defeated a similar case over “Shape of You,” Sheeran said “baseless” cases were taking a personal toll on him, and that he now films all of his recording sessions to disprove potential claims of infringement.
“It’s really damaging to the songwriting industry,” Sheeran said at the time. “There’s only so many notes and very few chords used in pop music. Coincidence is bound to happen if 60,000 songs are being released every day on Spotify.”