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Ed Sheeran sued again over Let’s Get It On song-theft claim, plaintiff hopes sneaky trick will strengthen their case

By | Published on Friday 12 June 2020

Ed Sheeran

One of the parties suing Ed Sheeran over allegations he ripped off Marvin Gaye’s ‘Let’s Get It On’ has filed a new lawsuit accusing Ed Sheeran of, well, ripping off Marvin Gaye’s ‘Let’s Get It On’. Why sue twice over the same song-theft claim? Well, to see if a sneaky trick can overcome a copyright technicality that could scupper their chances of winning lawsuit number one.

Back in 2016 the heirs of ‘Let’s Get It On’ co-writer Ed Townsend sued Sheeran through the US courts over allegations that he had ripped off the “melody, harmony and rhythm compositions” of the Gaye classic on his 2014 record ‘Thinking Out Loud’. A company called Structured Asset Sale then filed its own litigation over the same allegations on the basis it also had a stake in the ‘Let’s Get It On’ copyright.

Both cases have been slowly ambling their way through the legal process ever since. However, the Townsend estate was dealt a knockback in March in the wake of the headline-grabbing ruling in the Ninth Circuit appeals court regarding the ‘Stairway To Heaven’ song-theft case.

That knockback all relates to the aforementioned copyright technicality. It’s generally agreed that under US law songs are only protected by copyright in the form that they were originally registered with the US Copyright Office.

For cases involving older songs this has sometimes proven problematic, because prior to a change in US copyright law in the 1970s, only sheet music could be deposited with the Copyright Office. Which means those older songs are only protected as presented in that sheet music. Any additions made to the song in the studio when it was first recorded are therefore not protected.

That is annoying for the owners of old songs who reckon that upstart pop stars – like that pesky Sheeran chap – have ripped off their work. Because often the elements shared between the old song and the new song in disputes of that kind aren’t in the sheet music, but do appear in the original recording of the older work.

After judges in the Led Zep case confirmed that courts must respect this rule in song-theft disputes involving old songs, the judge in the Ed v Ed litigation said that he was now unlikely to allow the Townsend side to play any recordings of ‘Let’s Get It On’ to the jury once the case gets to court. Because jurors must only consider the Gaye song as shown in the original sheet music.

Concerned that this would negatively impact on its case too, Structured Asset Sale came up with a sneaky plan. What if it re-registered the song with the US Copyright Office, this time submitting the original sound recording as the deposit version rather than the sheet music? Then the studio-added elements would be protected by copyright too and they could play the Gaye track in court.

Whether or not that sneaky ruse will work remains to be seen. Structured Asset Sale originally asked to amend its original lawsuit to reference the new copyright registration, but the judge wouldn’t let that happen. Hence why it filed a brand new lawsuit earlier this week.

We will now watch with interest how that sneaky trick works out.