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Ed Sheeran not liable in Marvin Gaye copyright battle, jury rules

The jury returned a not-liable verdict Thursday in Ed Sheeran’s copyright battle over whether he stole from a Marvin Gaye song.

A jury in New York on May 4 found Ed Sheeran not liable in a copyright infringement battle over his hit song "Thinking Out Loud." (Video: Reuters)
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NEW YORK — Ed Sheeran has been found not liable for copyright infringement over his hit song “Thinking Out Loud,” a jury ruled Thursday.

The jury made its decision the day after listening to closing arguments in a week-long copyright trial in a Manhattan federal court.

Sheeran had faced allegations that he copied parts of Marvin Gaye’s 1973 hit “Let’s Get It On” for his 2014 song, “Thinking Out Loud.” Heirs of Ed Townsend — Gaye’s collaborator and song’s co-writer — sued him in 2017, claiming Sheeran copied “harmonic progressions, melodic and rhythmic elements” that are the “heart” of Gaye’s iconic song.

The musician appeared apprehensive as he awaited the verdict, which the jury reached after roughly three hours of deliberations. When it was finally read out by U.S. District Court Judge Louis Stanton, Sheeran briefly buried his face in his hands before reaching over, beaming, to hug his attorneys.

“I am obviously very happy with the outcome of the case, and it looks like I’m not to going to have to retire from day job after all,” Sheeran, who had threatened to quit the music industry if he was found liable, said in a statement a few minutes later. “But, at the same time, I am unbelievably frustrated that baseless claims like this are allowed to go to court after all.”

Here's a look inside one of the highest profile copyright cases from the last decade -- and how experts differentiate between infringement and inspiration. (Video: Daron Taylor, Sarah Hashemi/The Washington Post)

Sheeran left the courthouse without speaking to reporters. Representatives for Townsend did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Sheeran argued during the trial, which was delayed multiple times before kicking off in April, that many pop songs use the same progressions. He took the stand and expressed concern that copyright infringement claims artists face could be “really damaging for the songwriting industry.” He even played the guitar as a part of his defense.

Sheeran previously won a trial in the United Kingdom concerning a separate copyright-infringement claim for his 2017 song, “Shape of You.” He and his collaborators were also previously accused of copying the song “Amazing” by Matt Cardle for the 2014 song “Photograph.” Sheeran reportedly settled that case out of court.

“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,” Sheeran said in a video last year.

Hayleigh Bosher, a senior lecturer in intellectual property law at Brunel University London, told The Washington Post Sheeran’s latest case is similar to one from 2015 — when Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were found to have infringed on the copyright of Gaye’s song “Got to Give it Up” for their pop hit “Blurred Lines.”

Wednesday’s verdict could set new copyright precedent for the entertainment world.

“If it is found to be infringing, we will continue to see cases like this escalating,” Bosher said, “but if it is not, then we may see a rebalancing of the scope of what copyright protects in music.”

The trial took place as Sheeran was gearing up for a North American tour. He’s also got a new album — titled “Subtract” — due out sometime this year. The artist’s new documentary, called “Ed Sheeran: The Sum Of It All,” arrived on Disney Plus on Wednesday.

This article has been updated to reflect developing information.