Ed Sheeran Positions Copyright Trial as Betrayal of Unspoken Understanding Among Songwriters

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Disney+ "Ed Sheeran: The Sum Of It All" New York Screening - Credit: Jason Mendez/Getty Images
Disney+ "Ed Sheeran: The Sum Of It All" New York Screening - Credit: Jason Mendez/Getty Images

Throughout the copyright infringement case alleging that he lifted Marvin Gaye’s soul classic “Let’s Get It On” on his own hit record “Thinking Out Loud,” Ed Sheeran’s biggest frustration seems to have been the ongoing questioning of his artistic integrity as both a musician and songwriter. In an April interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe, the singer positioned the trial, which enters deliberations today, as a betrayal of the basic nature of creating music.

“The thing with these cases, it’s not usually songwriters that are suing songwriters. I mean sometimes it is, but it’s not,” Sheeran stated. “I feel like in the songwriting community, everyone sort of knows that there’s four chords primarily that are used and there’s eight notes. And we work with what we’ve got, with doing that.”

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In 2017, the heirs of “Let’s Get It On” co-writer Ed Townsend sued Sheeran, alleging that “Thinking Out Loud” had “striking similarities” that violate Townsend’s copyright. The singer maintains that he didn’t copy anything from Gaye’s 1973 hit, sharing in court testimony that it wasn’t even present in his mind at the time that “Thinking Out Loud” was created.

Still, in a post-“Blurred Lines” music industry where artists often grant credits to other writers in an attempt to get ahead of any potential litigation before it can be brought forth, Sheeran himself has sought clearance for songs he’s written that sound even slightly similar to another artist’s work.

“I had a song that I wrote for Keith Urban, and it sort of sounded like a Coldplay song,” Sheeran added, referring the country singer’s 2018 record “Parallel Line.” “So I emailed Chris Martin and I said, ‘This sounds like your tune. Can we clear it?’ And he went, ‘Don’t be ridiculous. No.’”

He added: “And on the song I made sure they put, ‘I think it sounds like “Everglow,” Coldplay.’ But he was just like, ‘Nah, I know how songs are written. And I know you didn’t go into the studio and go, I want to write this.'”

Sheeran spoke further about an often implied solidarity between musicians, one that is violated when these types of legal battles emerge and threaten to set a dangerous precedent for other songwriters. It’s not something he would ever consider unleashing on anyone else.

“I would just never do it. I’d just never do it. I feel like if people felt that they had, would come to me,” Sheeran said. “And I’ve cleared songs for people that have come.”

Sheeran has expressed these frustrations in court as well. On Monday, the singer questioned why the plaintiff’s witness expert, the musicologist Alexander Stewart, was allowed to make sweeping claims in his testimony, including stating that the two songs share a similar chord progression and “have the same harmonic rhythm” when it comes to the verses, choruses, and interlude, according to CNN.

“I think what he is doing is criminal,” Sheeran responded to Stewart’s testimony, according to The New York Times. “I don’t know why he’s allowed to be an expert.” He also pushed back against the terminology being used to describe the chords in his song to a court that didn’t appear to understand music theory. “Me, personally, I know what I’m playing on guitar,” he said while under cross-examination by Patrick Ryan Frank, a lawyer for the plaintiffs. He added: “To have someone come in and say, ‘We don’t believe you, you must have stolen it.’ I find that really insulting.”

Speaking of his decision to comment on the case, which will soon reach an end after six years, Sheeran told Zane Lowe: “This is the thing, even with the lawsuit stuff. When people are like, “Don’t talk about it, don’t talk about it,’ I’m like, ‘Why? What do you think my opinion is? This is my opinion. Obviously, I’m fucking fighting it.”

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