Marvin Gaye vs Ed Sheeran: What the Copyright Lawsuit Means for the Music Industry

The family of Marvin Gaye rocked the music world in 2015 when they sued Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for copying elements of Gaye’s hit, “Got to Give It Up,” in their own hit, “Blurred Lines.” Up until the jury sided with Gaye’s family, most musicians had assumed the musical elements in question were public domain.

That lawsuit seems to have opened up the floodgates, given the number of copyright lawsuits that have been filed in the music industry in the past eight years. Not all the lawsuits have ended in the plaintiffs’ favor, but enough have to give musicians pause when writing a new song.

The latest copyright lawsuit to make headlines in the music industry involves another Gaye song, “Let’s Get It On.” Instead of Gaye’s family, this copyright lawsuit has been filed by the family of Ed Townsend, who was the primary songwriter and owned 2/3 of the royalties on the song.

The case hinges on two chord progressions that are similar, but not identical. Even a musical expert testifying on behalf of the plaintiffs admitted the two chords have slight differences, but he maintained that they are interchangeable.

An attorney for the plaintiffs showed the jury a video of Sheeran performing a mashup of the two songs in question. The attorney claimed that Sheeran’s ability to move seamlessly from one song to the other proves that Sheeran stole the chord progression from the 1973 hit.

Sheeran testified in court that most pop songs use only a handful of chords. As a result, most pop songs can easily be mashed up with other pop songs, and he says he frequently does mashups in concert with songs from a wide variety of artists.

A musicologist testifying for Sheeran said the chord progression in question is extremely common. They listed more than a dozen other songs published before “Let’s Get It On” that used what was essentially the same sequence. They also submitted as evidence a guitar textbook that cites the chord progression in question as a standard progression that any musician can use to write a song.

The plaintiffs argued that, in addition to using similar chord progressions, the songs used the chord progressions in the same way, notably with a syncopated, rhythmic pattern. They claim that is enough to justify their copyright lawsuit.

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