Ed Sheeran Defends Himself in Copyright Case, With His Guitar

Ed Sheeran testified with a guitar on Thursday at a closely watched copyright trial, defending his hit ballad “Thinking Out Loud” against an accusation that he had copied it from Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”

Cradling his acoustic instrument in a federal courtroom in Manhattan, Mr. Sheeran demonstrated the four-chord sequence at the heart of his song, which he said was written in a few hours in early 2014 with his friend and longtime collaborator Amy Wadge. He recounted just stepping out of the shower of his home when he heard Ms. Wadge strumming the chords, and he remembered thinking: “We need to do something with that.”

The song went to No. 1 in Britain and No. 2 in the United States, and in 2016 won a Grammy Award for song of the year. But in 2017, the family of Ed Townsend, Gaye’s co-writer, sued for copyright infringement, saying that the chord progression, with its syncopated pattern, was copied from “Let’s Get It On.”

Mr. Sheeran has been a regular presence at the trial, which began on Monday in Federal District Court in Manhattan, listening to the testimony of his accusers, who include Kathryn Griffin Townsend, Mr. Townsend’s daughter.

Mr. Sheeran used part of his appearance on Thursday to rebut an assertion by Alexander Stewart, a musicologist serving as an expert witness for the plaintiffs. Both “Thinking Out Loud” and “Let’s Get It On” revolve around a nearly identical four-chord pattern. Mr. Stewart argued that for the first 24 seconds of “Thinking Out Loud,” when Mr. Sheeran plays the second chord in the sequence, it is similar to the minor one that appears in the same position of the progression throughout “Let’s Get It On.”

But Mr. Sheeran denied that he played that chord, and in court demonstrated it both ways — first the major version he said he has played at “every single gig,” and then, with a slight grimace, the minor one that Mr. Stewart suggested.

“It works very, very well for him,” Mr. Sheeran said, “but it’s not the truth.”

Mr. Sheeran testified for nearly an hour on Thursday, with most of that time devoted to recounting his career trajectory from hardscrabble teenage beginnings to global stardom.

He left school at 17 to concentrate on music, and played every pub open-mic night in London that he could. “I would play anywhere that would have me,” Mr. Sheeran testified.

At the same time, he said, he was developing as a songwriter. Then as now, he has preferred to work fast, saying that most of his songs are written in a day, or even a matter of minutes. He has written as many as eight or nine songs a day, he said.

For much of the last decade Mr. Sheeran has been one of the biggest hitmakers in pop music, dominating streaming platforms and collaborating with fellow stars like Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber and Beyoncé. Next week he will release a new album, “-” (pronounced “Subtract”) and embark on a North American stadium tour.

“Thinking Out Loud” was created during a two-day writing session with Ms. Wadge at his home in the south of England. The pair started the song before dinner and finished it later the same evening, he said, recording the track on Mr. Sheeran’s iPhone; the finished version was made at a studio just days later. The song was inspired, he said, by the decades-long love he observed among his grandparents.

“I draw inspiration a lot from people in my own life,” Mr. Sheeran testified.

The singer is expected to return to the stand when the trial resumes on Monday.

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