Jury selection begins in Ed Sheeran-Marvin Gaye copyright case

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Jury selection has begun in a trial which will decide whether Ed Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud violates the copyright of the Marvin Gaye classic Let’s Get It On.

The heirs of Ed Townsend, Gaye’s co-writer on the 1973 soul classic, sued Sheeran, alleging the English pop star’s hit 2014 tune has “striking similarities” to Let’s Get It On and “overt common elements” that violate their copyright.

The lawsuit filed in 2017 has finally made it to a trial that is expected to last up to two weeks in the Manhattan federal courtroom of 95-year-old Judge Louis L Stanton.

Sheeran, 32, is among the witnesses expected to give evidence, though he was not in court at the start of jury selection.

Marvin Gaye Mural
A mural of the late Marvin Gaye in Brixton (Matt Crossick/PA)

Thinking Out Loud, which won a Grammy for song of the year, is a much more marital take on love and sex.

While the jury will hear the recordings of both songs, probably many times, their lyrics – and vibes – are legally insignificant.

Jurors are supposed to only consider the raw elements of melody, harmony and rhythm that make up the composition of Let’s Get It On, as documented on sheet music filed with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.

Sheeran’s lawyers have said the songs’ undeniable structural symmetry points only to the foundations of popular music.

Ed Sheeran
Ed Sheeran (Invision/AP, File)

Townsend family attorneys pointed out in the lawsuit that artists including Boyz II Men have performed seamless mashups of the two songs, and that even Sheeran himself has segued into Let’s Get It On during live performances of Thinking Out Loud.

They sought to play a potentially damning YouTube video of one such Sheeran performance for the jury at trial. Stanton denied their motion to include it, but said he would reconsider it after he sees other evidence that is presented.

Gaye’s estate is not involved in the case, though it will inevitably have echoes of their successful lawsuit against Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and TI over the resemblance between their 2013 hit Blurred Lines and Gaye’s 1977 song, Got to Give it Up.

A jury awarded Gaye’s heirs 7.4 million dollars (£5.9 million) at trial – later trimmed by a judge to 5.3 million dollars (£4.2 million) — making it among the most significant copyright cases in recent decades.

Marvin Gaye
Singer-songwriter Marvin Gaye was shot dead in 1984 (AP)

Townsend, who also wrote the 1958 R&B doo-wop hit For Your Love, was a singer, songwriter and lawyer.
He died in 2003. Kathryn Townsend Griffin, his daughter, is the plaintiff leading the lawsuit.

Already a Motown superstar in the 1960s before his more adult 1970s output made him a generational musical giant, Gaye was shot dead by his father in 1984 at the age of 44, as he tried to intervene in a fight between his parents.

Major artists are often hit with lawsuits alleging song-stealing, but nearly all of them settle before trial — as Taylor Swift recently did over Shake It Off, ending a lawsuit that lasted years longer and came closer to trial than most other cases.

But Sheeran has shown a willingness to go to trial before. A year ago, he won a UK copyright battle over his 2017 hit Shape Of You, then slammed what he described as a “culture” of baseless lawsuits intended to squeeze money out of artists eager to avoid the expense of a trial.

“I feel like claims like this are way too common now and have become a culture where a claim is made with the idea that a settlement will be cheaper than taking it to court, even if there is no basis for the claim,” Sheeran said in a video posted on Twitter after the verdict.

“It’s really damaging to the songwriting industry.”

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