The pop singer Ed Sheeran took the witness stand Tuesday at a closely watched copyright trial in which he stands accused of copying his ballad “Thinking Out Loud” from Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On,” and told a jury that he and a collaborator had written their song based on their own experiences.
Appearing at federal court in Manhattan in a dark suit and blue tie, with his red hair tousled, Mr. Sheeran testified that he and his co-writer, Amy Wadge, had created “Thinking Out Loud” independently.
“Yes, Amy Wadge and I wrote the song ‘Thinking Out Loud,’” Mr. Sheeran said, explaining that they created the song, about holding on to romance throughout a long life, after seeing the affection between his aged grandparents.
The case was brought by the family of Ed Townsend, a producer and songwriter who created “Let’s Get It On” with Gaye in 1973. They assert that the “heart” of “Let’s Get It On” — a four-chord progression that repeats in a signature syncopated rhythm — was copied by Mr. Sheeran. Lawyers for Mr. Sheeran argue that those elements are basic musical building blocks that are in the public domain and have turned up in numerous other songs.
In opening statements, Ben Crump, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, urged the jury to use “common sense” in comparing the songs, and said that the evidence included what he described as “a smoking gun”: a fan video that showed Sheeran performing a “mash-up,” or medley, in which he moved seamlessly between “Thinking Out Loud” and “Let’s Get It On.”
“That concert video is a confession,” said Mr. Crump, who is best known as a civil rights lawyer who represented the family of George Floyd, who was killed by the police in 2020.
After the judge in the case, Louis L. Stanton, reviewed the video in private, it was played for the jury. Another lawyer for the plaintiffs, Keisha D. Rice, asked Mr. Sheeran about it.
He said that he frequently performs such mash-ups in concert, and that he is able to do so because many pop tunes involve only a handful of chords.
“Most pop songs can fit over most pop songs,” Mr. Sheeran said. “I’m just mashing up a song with another song,” he added.
Under questioning, Mr. Sheeran was never directly challenged on whether he had copied from “Let’s Get It On,” which he said he had first heard in an “Austin Powers” movie.
He described some of the creation of “Thinking Out Loud,” which was released in 2014, saying that it had begun with Ms. Wadge strumming some chords on a guitar. He added some more, and they “went back and forth” on other parts.
“That’s kind of how songwriting works,” Mr. Sheeran testified.
Mr. Sheeran also discussed a different influence on “Thinking Out Loud,” saying that once the song was recorded, “it sounded like it emulated Van Morrison, production-wise.” He cited several tracks by Mr. Morrison with similar chord structures.
After his song came out, Mr. Sheeran testified, Mr. Morrison visited him for breakfast and said how much he loved the track. They are now friends, Mr. Sheeran said.
Ilene S. Farkas, a lawyer for Sheeran, said in her opening statement that the two songs share commonplace ingredients that are found in numerous tracks, and which are in the public domain for any musician to use.
She said that the plaintiffs “cannot own these common musical elements.”
The first witness, called just before noon, was Kathryn Griffin Townsend, the daughter of Mr. Townsend.
Wearing a tan coat with the word “integrity” emblazoned on the back, Ms. Griffin Townsend testified that once “Thinking Out Loud” came out, numerous acquaintances in the music world called her, saying the similarity was striking to them. “Some said the words are just changed,” she said people would tell her. “It’s ‘Let’s Get It On.’”
She said she had tried to reach representatives at Sony/ATV, the music publishing giant that represents Townsend’s catalog — and Mr. Sheeran’s — but could never reach anyone, and got no response. In cross-examination, however, lawyers for Mr. Sheeran pointed out that Ms. Griffin Townsend’s lawyers had extensive correspondence with Sony/ATV about her claim.
She said that she still wanted someone at the company, which has been renamed Sony Music Publishing, to simply explain the business to her.
“Paper is not talking to me,” she said. “I work better with human contact.”
Ms. Griffin Townsend praised Mr. Sheeran as “a great artist with a great future” and said she was no “copyright troll” — a term that describes a litigious copyright owner whose primary strategy for making money is threatening or filing lawsuits.
“I have to protect my father’s legacy,” she said.
Mr. Sheeran’s celebrity status was noted throughout the courthouse, with heads turning as he walked in and out of the courtroom, a public bathroom and even the cafeteria, where he ordered a meatball sub.
At the conclusion of Mr. Sheeran’s testimony, his lawyers said they would not cross-examine him, but would call him back to the stand at another point during the trial.