Ed Sheeran has been found ‘not guilty’ of copyright infringement in the ‘Thinking Out Loud’ court battle – as sighs of relief flow from corners of the music industry

Ed Sheeran wowed the crowd with his sonic thoughts (Image credit: Christopher Johnson)

Did Ed Sheeran steal Thinking Out Loud? Not according to a decision by the federal jury made this morning. The superstar singer-songwriter has emerged victorious from a high-profile copyright infringement lawsuit brought by a Marvin Gaye songwriter – and parts of the music industry breathe a sigh of relief.

Ed Sheeran is “not guilty” in a high-risk copyright dispute over his Grammy-winning track “Thinking Out Loud,” according to ruling details shared with Digital Music News this morning. The court battle focused on whether Sheeran and his associates stole the Marvin Gaye classic Let’s Get It On.

After approximately three hours of closed-door deliberations, a jury in the Manhattan federal court case ruled that Sheeran was not responsible for willful copyright infringement. These jury instructions will now be relayed to the presiding judge, who is expected to confirm the findings and close the case.

While the case does not set a clear legal precedent, it could change the contours of future copyright infringement cases involving similar musical works.

The thorny lawsuit was filed by Marvin Gaye’s co-writer Ed Townsend, who was seeking compensation for blatant copyright infringement.

As part of the plaintiff’s attack, the jury was shown video footage of Sheeran performing a medley of the two songs, with “Thinking Out Loud” seamlessly merging into “Let’s Get It On.”

Ed Townsend’s attorney, Ben Crump, called the mashup “smoking evidence” and presented the evidence as conclusive proof of a theft. But the seemingly damning evidence wasn’t enough to charge Sheeran with a crime.

Instead, Sheeran’s attorneys argued that both songs contained common musical elements and arrangements. In fact, the defense argued that if a simple four-chord progression and a downtempo soul vibe constitute an infraction, then a large body of popular music could be considered a mutual infraction.

Sheeran himself found the allegations frivolous and absurd, and expressed this during the trial. The singer-songwriter was surprisingly vocal about his frustration during the multi-week trial, even threatening to quit music if he lost the trial.

“If I did what you’re accusing me of doing, I’d be quite an idiot standing on stage in front of 25,000 people,” Sheeran bluntly stated during the trial. After the acquittal was announced, Ed Sheeran was visibly relieved. He put his hands on his face and then hugged his lawyer.

Interestingly, Sheeran didn’t pretend that Marvin Gaye didn’t give him inspiration for his creative process. But creativity emerges from a patchwork of influences and should not be suppressed solely for the resulting similarities to earlier works. “We all benefit from artists having the freedom to create and build on what came before them,” Sheeran’s attorney Ilene Farkas argued, warning that “creation would be stifled for fear of a lawsuit.”

The results will be greeted with relief across many sectors of the songwriting, publishing and music IP communities.

Perhaps the “deterrent effect” provided by similar cases over a number of years has weakened somewhat, as extremely aggressive and even frivolous claims are now riskier for litigants. Digital Music News has not conducted official polls on the matter, although informal feedback from numerous songwriters, publishers and music IP holders suggests that concerns over a spate of copyright lawsuits have increased in recent years.

This case, however, represents a setback for contentious IP owners. “Let’s hope this is the first of many (similar case findings),” a publishing executive wrote to DMN via email. “Many were concerned that this was all going to be driven insane.”

This “crazy place” refers to a highly contentious environment where any hit is considered fair game for litigation simply because it bears resemblance to a previous play. Perhaps the most shocking result came a few years ago in a landmark judgment against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, whose Blurred Lines was found liable for copyright infringement.

Notably, this decision was made based on similarities to tonal elements found in Marvin Gaye’s “Gotta Give It Up,” rather than a direct violation of any specific note pattern, rhythm, or other specific compositional detail.

Whether this case was an anomaly remains unclear, particularly as juries and judges remain unpredictable about the limits of compositional creativity. “As we saw in the Blurred Lines case, a jury-based system can sometimes produce unpredictable results when faced with complex, technical issues at the intersection of copyright and music theory,” says copyright attorney Nick Eziefula, Partner at media and entertainment law firm, Simkins told DMN.

“This decision will allay concerns that the floodgates will be opened to more and more song infringement lawsuits of this nature.”