Ed Sheeran defends himself in a copyright case, with his guitar

Ed Sheeran testified with a guitar Thursday in a closely watched copyright trial, defending his hit song “Thinking Out Loud” against accusations he copied it from Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On.”

Cradling his acoustic instrument in a Manhattan federal courtroom, Mr. Sheeran showed off the four-chord sequence at the heart of his song, which he says was written in a few hours in early 2014 with his friend and longtime collaborator Amy Wadge. He recounted that he had just come out of the bathroom in his house when he heard Mrs. Wadge playing 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 US, and in 2016 it won the Grammy Award for Song of the Year. But in 2017, the family of Gaye’s co-writer Ed Townsend sued for copyright infringement, saying 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 opened Monday in federal district court in Manhattan, hearing testimony from his accusers, who include Katherine Griffin Townsend, Mr. Townsend’s daughter.

Mr. Sheeran used part of his Thursday appearance to refute an assertion by Alexander Stewart, a musicologist who acts as an expert witness for the plaintiffs. “Thinking Out Loud” and “Let’s Get It On” both revolve around an almost identical four-string pattern. Mr. Stewart said that in the first 24 seconds of “Thinking Out Loud,” when Mr. Sheeran plays the second chord in the sequence, it is similar to the minor chord that appears in the same progression position during “Let’s Get It On.”

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But Mr. Sheeran denied having ever played that chord, and showed it in court both ways—first the major version which he said he had played at “every single concert”, and then, with a slight grimace, that Mr. Stewart had suggested.

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

Mr. Sheeran testified for about an hour on Thursday, with most of that time dedicated to recounting his career path from tough teenage beginnings to global stardom.

He left school at 17 to focus on music, and played every night in an open air pub in London as often as he could. “I would have played anywhere that could have been mine,” Mr. Sheeran said in his testimony.

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

For most of the past decade, Mr. Sheeran has been one of pop music’s biggest hits, dominating streaming platforms and collaborating with fellow superstars like Taylor Swift, Justin Bieber, and BeyoncĂ©. Next week he will release a new album, “-” (pronounced “Subtract”) and kick off a North American stadium tour.

“Thinking Out Loud” was created during a two-day writing session with Mrs. Wadge at his home in the south of England. The two started the song before dinner and finished it later that same evening, he said, recording the song on Mr. Sheeran’s phone. The final version was made in the studio a few days later. He said the song was inspired by the decades-old love he observed between his grandparents.

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In his testimony, Mr. Sheeran said, “I am inspired by many people in my own life.”

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

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