Ed Sheeran has been defending himself in a New York court against the latest accusations of plagiarism being made against him, this time by the heirs of Ed Townsend, co-writer of Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get It On. They claim similarities between Gaye’s 1973 hit and Sheeran’s Thinking Out Loud, which he co-wrote with Amy Wadge and was released in 2014.
The case, which was originally filed in 2017, hinges on the ascending I - iii - IV - V chord progression that both songs share (Gaye’s is in the key of Eb; Sheeran’s is in D). The way that the sequence is played is also being considered: in each case, the III and V chords land lightly off the beat.
Representing the plaintiffs, lawyer Ben Crump argued that the fact that Sheeran had performed a mash-up of the two songs was “a confession” of plagiarism, but the singer countered by saying that “If I had done what you’re accusing me of doing, I’d be a quite an idiot to stand on a stage in front of 20,000 people and do that.”
He also argued that “most pop songs can fit over most pop songs,” echoing the point he made on a chat show in 2017 when he claimed that he could play “every song in the pop chart right now” over the same four chords.
Indeed, the central thrust of Sheeran’s defence is that - in the words of his lawyer Ilene S Farkas - “No one owns basic musical building blocks.” He believes that chord progressions such as this one should be “unprotectable”.
In 2022, Sheeran won a plagiarism case that was brought against him by Sami Chokri and his co-writer Ross O’Donoghue, who claimed that Sheeran and his co-writers Steve Mac and Johnny McDaid lifted the “Oh I” hook in his 2017 hit Shape Of You’s chorus from Chokri’s 2015 song Oh Why, which was released under his Sami Switch moniker.
He had previously recognised the writers of TLC’s hit No Scrubs as co-writers of Shape Of You, but always strenuously denied that he had copied Chokri, noting in court that his song’s hook employs a well-worn minor pentatonic pattern that’s been used countless times in the past.