A federal judge in Manhattan has ruled that a copyright infringement lawsuit filed against Ed Sheeran in connection with his song “Thinking Out Loud” may proceed to a jury trial, rejecting Sheeran’s attempts to have the case dismissed.
In 2018, Sheeran was sued by Structured Asset Sales, a company owning a one-third stake in the assets of Ed Townsend, who co-wrote the song “Let’s Get It On” with Marvin Gaye. Structured Assets claimed Sheeran had stolen copyrighted portions from “Let’s Get It On” when he wrote, “Thinking Out Loud.” In response, Sheeran argued that the song elements he was accused of copying, namely, the chord progression and the harmonic rhythm, were not unique enough to receive copyright protection, and therefore he could not have infringed the copyright in the song. Structured Asset Sales asserted that the combination of both these elements are sufficient to receive copyright protection.
Judge Louis Stanton did not decide this issue, but wrote that “there is no bright-line rule that the combination of two unprotected elements is sufficiently numerous to constitute a copyrighted work.” He wrote further that “a work may be copyrightable even though it is entirely a compilation of unprotectable elements.” Ruling that he could not resolve the issue as a matter of law, Judge Stanton refused to dismiss the claims and ruled that the case would need to be presented to a jury.
This ruling represents a big victory for Sheeran’s accusers. It is always uncertain how juries will decide these types of cases, and in the past, juries have awarded large damage awards to plaintiffs under similar circumstances. For example, in March 2015, a jury awarded $7.4 million to the Estate of Marvin Gaye, finding that Robin Thicke had infringed the Marvin Gaye song “Got To Give It Up” in his song “Blurred Lines.”
Sheeran has been involved in this type of dispute before. This past April, he won a lawsuit in the UK in which he was accused of having copied another song when he wrote “Shape of You.”