The heirs of Ed Townsend — who co-wrote the iconic song with Gaye – filed a so-called notice of appeal Thursday in Manhattan federal court, the first step toward asking a federal appeals court (the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit) to overturn the outcome and revive their lawsuit against Sheeran.
The upcoming appellate battle will mark the next chapter in nearly seven years of litigation over “Thinking Out Loud” — a commercial and critical success that hit No. 2 on the Hot 100 before eventually winning the Grammy Award for song of the year.
In their suit, Kathryn Townsend Griffin and other Townsend heirs claimed that Sheeran had “knowingly and intentionally infringed” the earlier tune, stealing the “heart” from one of the most “instantly recognizable songs in R&B history.”
The two songs at issue in the case do sound similar, as even Sheeran has seemingly acknowledged: The star was captured on video at a 2014 concert toggling back and forth between them, drawing huge applause from the audience. But his lawyers say that’s simply because the two tracks share commonplace musical building blocks – elements that are free for all to use and cannot be “monopolized” under copyright law.
After years of delay, the case finally went to trial in April. Lawyers for the Townsends urged the jurors to “give credit where credit is due,” playing that concert video of Sheeran and calling it a “smoking gun.” But Sheeran’s lawyers, supported by testimony from the star himself that included a brief guitar performance, argued the star had done nothing wrong by using “the scaffolding on which all songwriting is built.”
On May 4, jurors sided with Sheeran, finding that he and his co-writer had independently created “Thinking Out Loud” without copying it from “Let’s Get It On” and clearing him of millions in potential legal damages.
A verdict against the singer would have reverberated throughout the music industry, much like an infamous 2015 verdict against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams over their megahit “Blurred Lines,” which made musicians and companies more cautious about similar-sounding songs. Instead, his case represents the latest lawsuit in which such claims were rejected, following a 2020 ruling on Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” and a 2022 ruling on Katy Perry’s “Dark Horse.”
Thursday’s motion – procedural first step in any appeal in federal court – does not include detailed arguments; those will be filed later at the Second Circuit. But they will likely include challenges to what evidence the judge allowed to be used in the case and how he conducted the trial in April. Such appeals typically face an uphill climb, particularly when a case was decided by a jury rather than by a judge.
Briefs will be filed at the Second Circuit in the coming months. It could take the court well over a year to issue a final ruling.