Back in October of 2022, I wrote about Ed Sheeran being sued by the family of Ed Townsend, who co-wrote the 1973 smash hit (and perennial slow-jam earworm) “Let’s Get It On” with Marvin Gaye.
You can click here to read more about that and the concepts and ideas behind the suit, as well as Sheeran’s response to it. Given Sheeran’s willingness to go to court to defend his work, which is very unusual among musical artists, it’s perhaps not surprising that Sheeran has been ordered to stand trial before a jury in New York City in the courtroom of Louis Stanton, who heard the original arguments in the suit. Sheeran is due to appear in court today, April 25th, 2023, for opening arguments in a trial scheduled to last roughly two weeks.
This case isn’t just unusual because it features a superstar singer facing infringement allegations, which alone would make it lamentably commonplace but still worthy of notice. It’s also notable because of the facts that a) it actually made it before the bench, which is rare enough in and of itself given these cases tend to settle out of court long before a trial date arrives, and b) Sheeran was ordered to face a trial by jury by the presiding judge, owing to the judge’s own stated belief that he did not feel himself to be properly qualified to evaluate and assess the relative merits of the case.
This places Sheeran in a much more tenuous position. There’s a common joke about the defendant in any jury trial being at an unfair disadvantage because their fate hangs on the decision of twelve people who weren’t smart enough to avoid jury duty.
However, the fact is that jurors are people drawn from a wide range of cultural, educational, and intellectual backgrounds. The only core commonality these jurors reliably share is the fact they’ve lived in Manhattan long enough to be called for jury duty.
It’s likely that at least a few of the jurors have music backgrounds of some sort, even if it didn’t go any further than a handful of piano lessons as a child.
It’s nearly inconceivable but still possible that some or all of them have not heard either or both “Let’s Get It On” or “Thinking Out Loud,” given how ubiquitous both songs have become on the radio, at weddings and dances, and so on.
Sheeran also has numbers working against him: where in a closed hearing, he only needed to convince one person (the judge), he must now convince TWELVE people of varying backgrounds, levels of musical sophistication, and musical tastes of his innocence.
Given that Sheeran has himself transitioned to “Let’s Get It On” directly from “Thinking Out Loud” in concert, this might prove to be a tougher sell than he expects.
Although Judge Stanton has explicitly barred video of Sheeran’s live performances, which included both songs, from being viewed by the jury for the present, he has indicated he may later allow it as the course of the trial demands.
There are a lot of unusual elements in this case. Still, one thing is certain: Of all the infringement cases going on right now, this is going to be one for the record books, no matter whether Sheeran can convince a jury that any similarities between his work and Ed Townsend’s are purely coincidental. Keep watching this space for updates!
About John Rizvi, Esq.
John Rizvi is a Registered and Board Certified Patent Attorney, Adjunct Professor of Intellectual Property Law, best-selling author, and featured speaker on topics of interest to inventors and entrepreneurs (including TEDx).
His books include “Escaping the Gray” and “Think and Grow Rich for Inventors” and have won critical acclaim including an endorsement from Kevin Harrington, one of the original sharks on the hit TV show – Shark Tank, responsible for the successful launch of over 500 products resulting in more than $5 billion in sales worldwide. You can learn more about Professor Rizvi and his patent law practice at www.ThePatentProfessor.com
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