British singer Ed Sheeran has appeared in a New York court to deny that his song Thinking Out Loud copied Marvin Gaye’s Let’s Get it On.
The heirs of Gaye’s co-writer Ed Townsend claim that Sheeran, Warner Music Group and Sony Music Publishing owe them money for allegedly stealing the song.
At the opening of the case, their attorney called Sheeran’s use of Gaye’s song lyrics at his concerts a “smoking gun”.
But he said it would be “utterly foolish” to do that if he had copied the song.
Asked by attorney Keisha Rice about another song he wrote, Take it Back, which contains the lyrics “the plagiarism is hidden”, Sheeran confirmed that he wrote the lyrics.
“Those are my lyrics, yeah,” he said, adding, “Can I give them some context?”
She said if she wanted context she would ask and then asked him about concert footage recorded in Zurich showing him mixing the lyrics to Gaye’s 1973 song with Thinking Out Loud.
Earlier, another attorney for the family – civil rights lawyer Ben Crump – told the court the concert video amounted to an “irrefutable” confession.
Sheeran replied that he sometimes mixed songs with similar chords during his performances and seemed to become frustrated when Ms. Rice cut him off.
“I feel like you don’t want me to answer because you know what I’m about to say is actually going to make a lot of sense,” he said.
“You can go from Let it Be to No Woman, No Cry and back again,” Sheeran continued under oath, referencing Beatles and Bob Marley classics.
“If I had done what you accuse me of doing, I would be an idiot to stand on a stage in front of 20,000 people and do this.”
In his opening statement, Mr Crump “recognized the magic” of Gaye’s song and “decided to capture some of that magic for his own benefit”.
As the trial opened on Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Louis Stanton warned the seven-member jury that despite music being played in court: “We’re not allowing dancing.”
The trial is expected to last at least a week. If the jury finds the pop star liable for copyright infringement, the trial will enter a second phase to determine how much he owes.
The court case comes as the singer prepares to kick off a North American stadium tour and release a new album.
Earlier Tuesday, Sheeran’s lawyer argued that the two songs are distinct from each other and that no artist should be allowed to “monopolize” commonly used musical chord progressions.
“Nobody has the basic elements of music,” said Ilene Farkas.
“Both songs share versions of a similar, non-copyrightable (sic) chord progression that was freely available to all songwriters,” his attorneys said in an earlier court filing.
Mr Townsend’s daughter testified before Sheeran, according to The New York Times.
Kathryn Griffin-Townsend hailed Sheeran as “a great entertainer with a great future,” the newspaper reported. She told jurors she brought the case reluctantly and because “I have to protect my father’s legacy”.
The latest trial comes a year after Sheeran was cleared in a trial in London for copying his hit song Shape Of You.
The Thinking Out Loud claim was originally filed in 2018, not by Gaye’s family, but by investment banker David Pullman and a company called Structured Asset Sales (SAS), which acquired part of Gaye’s estate. -author of Let’s Get It On, Ed. Townsend.
Seeking $100m (£90m) in damages, they allege that Sheeran and her co-writer Amy Wadge “copied and exploited, without permission or credit” Gaye’s song, “including, but without limited to, the melody, rhythms, harmonies, drums, bass line, chorus, tempo, syncopation and looping”.
Ms. Wadge and various expert musicologists are expected to testify at the New York trial.
It’s not the only lawsuit Sheeran faces over Thinking Out Loud, which hit number one in the UK in 2014 and won Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards in 2016.
SAS has filed a second case, which is currently on hiatus, while a separate lawsuit brought by another part of Townsend’s estate is pending trial.