Artist News Business News Labels & Publishers Legal

Renowned civil rights lawyer joins Let’s Get It On song-theft case

By | Published on Thursday 24 September 2020

Ed Sheeran

Lawyers representing the estate of the late songwriter Ed Townsend in the copyright dispute over Ed Sheeran’s ‘Thinking Out Loud’ have claimed that the ongoing legal battle is another example of the music industry unfairly exploiting black musicians.

The Townsend estate first sued Sheeran, his label Warner Music and publisher Sony/ATV back in 2016. It alleges that ‘Thinking Out Loud’ stole the “melody, harmony and rhythm compositions” of Marvin Gaye’s ‘Let’s Get It On’, which Townsend co-wrote.

The lawsuit has plenty of parallels with the other big song-theft cases that have been heard in the American courts in recent years, including the ‘Blurred Lines’ case – which involved another of Gaye’s records of course – and the ‘Stairway To Heaven’ case. Precedents set in the latter could as yet directly impact on the ‘Thinking Out Loud’ litigation, most likely in Sheeran’s favour.

As the case slowly works its way to court, the Townsend estate’s legal team are seeking to capitalise on the recently renewed debate over the way the music industry has historically treated black musicians. That renewed debate was sparked, of course, by the industry-wide Black Out Tuesday initiative, which was in turn a response to the death of George Floyd and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests.

As part of that, earlier this week the estate announced that renowned civil rights lawyer Ben Crump – who is representing the Floyd family on legal matters – is now also working on the ‘Thinking Out Loud’ litigation.

Confirming that, Crump told reporters that he feels the song-theft case is important because “it marks a refusal to perpetuate the rampant theft of black musicians at the hands of the music industry”.

He added: “The music industry has a dark history of exploiting black musicians and profiting wildly from the theft of their creative genius. And despite in depth conversations with Sony leadership about the ongoing and pervasive mistreatment of black artists, our words have fallen on deaf ears. This suit is a line in the sand”.

As well as confirming the involvement of Crump in the case, the estate also announced earlier this week notable backing from the artist community, with George Clinton formally lending his support in the legal battle.

Hitting out at the music industry in general – and echoing some of the recent statements made by Kanye West in his still ongoing Twitter battle with the major labels and publishers – Clinton said: “Record companies have made a fortune stealing from unsophisticated artists with stars in their eyes who were just happy to have the attention”.

He then added: “But the bad deals and outright theft in some cases have cheated performers and their families from wealth that should belong to them”.

Of course, however valid the criticism by Crump, Clinton and the Townsend estate regarding the past and current conduct of the corporate end of the music industry – towards artists in general and black artists in particular – the lawsuit being fought here is entirely based on copyright law technicalities.

Aware of that, alongside the announcements of Crump’s involvement and Clinton’s support, the Townsend estate also this week issued a statement from a University Of Vermont professor and musicologist, Dr Alex Stewart, who is adamant that ‘Thinking Out Loud’ is sufficiently similar to ‘Let’s Get It On’ to constitute copyright infringement.

The evidence in the case, Stewart said, “points conclusively toward the creators of ‘Thinking Out Loud’ having copied important musical expressions from the song ‘Let’s Get It On’. This unauthorised taking accounts for the foundation, groove, and core musical expression of both songs and, by itself, constitutes a violation of the artistic integrity of the original song”.

Of course, in every song-theft case there are expert musicologists on hand to agree with both sides of the argument. And it remains to be seen how Stewart’s analysis fairs in court – and what other copyright technicalities come into play, copyright law generally struggling when it comes to song-theft allegations.

Assuming it gets to court, of course. If the Townsend estate can successfully link this case to the unfair treatment of black musicians in general, maybe Warner, Sony and Team Sheeran will be increasingly keen to settle.

Either way, another lawyer working on the case, Keisha D Rice, said this week: “‘Let’s Get It On’ was one of the most successful Motown records of all time, and it influenced a generation of music. But it goes beyond influence to produce another mega hit by copying the melody, rhythms, harmonies, drums, bassline, backing chorus, tempo, syncopation and looping as blatantly as Sheeran did”.

While Crump concluded: “Financial empowerment is one of the primary ways black Americans will improve their position in our society and the lives of their families and the generations to follow them. So many important black artists at the heart of American music have lost the rights to their music or have had their music literally stolen from them. It’s time [the industry was] held accountable”.