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Q&A: Discussing the Ed Sheeran Lawsuit With ‘Let’s Get It On’ Heir Kathryn Griffin-Townsend

marvin gaye, ed sheeran, let's get it on, thinking out loud, ed townsend

Earlier this week, news broke that the heirs of late soul songwriter Ed Townsend had officially taken legal action against British singer/songwriter Ed Sheeran. The family is suing for what they see as unlawful usage of the “heart” of Marvin Gaye’s 1973 classic “Let’s Get It On” — co-written by Townsend — for his own 2014 smash hit, “Thinking Out Loud.” One of the three plaintiffs mentioned in the case is 56-year-old Kathryn Griffin-Townsend, daughter of Ed, who currently works as a recovery coach and coordinator for We’ve Been There Done That, a prostitution and human-trafficking reform program at Houston’s Harris County jail.

Kathryn Griffin-Townsend contacted SPIN after we wrote an article last year drawing the comparison between “Let’s Get It On” and “Thinking Out Loud,” and wondering if, in the wake of the “Blurred Lines” verdict, Sheeran should prepare himself for similar legal action. Though Griffin-Townsend’s family is now indeed taking matters to court, Kathryn says that the “Blurred Lines” case had no bearing on her decision, and that she simply wants Sheeran’s camp to take her family’s claim seriously, which they previously have not. “I don’t want [Sheeran] to be looked upon in an ugly light, I really don’t,” Griffin-Townsend says. “I hate it that me and the family had to go to this measure to get their attention. I’m not looking for the public’s attention. It’s time for people to just do the right thing.”

In a phone conversation with SPIN on Thursday, Kathryn went into further detail about the backstory behind her family’s lawsuit, what she wants to accomplish with it, and why she still hopes she can still have a civil conversation with Sheeran’s camp before things get any uglier.

Do you remember the first time you heard Ed Sheeran’s “Thinking Out Loud?” 
Yeah, I think the song had been out a couple of months. And somebody called — a friend of mine who works for CBS — and said I needed to listen to this song, because this young British kid actually copied the music from [my] dad’s song, “Let’s Get It On.” And then shortly after that, I saw your article, and this stuff just started popping up everywhere.

Let me just say this: Intellectual properties — people look at it different when it’s human beings, but the law is the law. If I went and rented a car, they’re not gonna let me keep their car without paying them. And if I don’t pay them, then I’ve broken the law.

So you see it as him renting your father’s song?
Without paying for it. And trust me, I’m very ecstatic that he loves my father’s gift, and my father’s song. I mean, I wanted us to be able to sit down and talk about it, and his people were unwilling to do that.

You’ve never had any direct contact with Ed Sheeran?
No. My legal team tried — their team was notified over a year ago that we wanted to talk about it. I didn’t want to have to file a lawsuit, but my father was very protective of his work, and he wanted that work to remain in this family, and he took great pride in everything that he did. And especially the song “Let’s Get It On.” That’s the only song, to my knowledge, that my father wrote when he was really working on his rehabilitation from alcohol and substance abuse.

We own 100 percent of the publishing. The deal is, this has absolutely nothing to do with the Gaye family. I love them. Our families have been very close. My father, matter of fact, introduced Jan [Hunter, Gaye’s future wife] to Marvin. There’s a lot of history there.

But I never wanted any of this. I mean, I try to stay away from the comments right now, because people are saying ugly things about Ed Sheeran, they’re saying ugly things about the heirs. “Are heirs just copyright trolls, looking for money? They need to get a job.” I work seven days a week! I have over 2,700 women, men, and transgender [people] who are struggling trying to get out of the life of substance abuse, prostitution, and sex trafficking. I’ve dedicated my life to that. And I dedicate all my royalties to helping each one of these individuals that I have for many, many years, since I have been clean and sober. I got sober right after my father died in ‘03, and I never looked back.

I’m not looking for fame [in] any shape, form, or fashion. Somebody put a horrible thing out there… they said I wanted to be famous, and I wanted to relive my days in the music industry, and I wear Chanel suits. I don’t even know what a Chanel suit looks like! I have no clue. They sound uncomfortable.

The first time you heard the song, was the similarity immediately striking to you?
Yes, because I know music. People that say, “I hear no similarities,” they’re listening to the words! They’re not listening to the music. And I’m just glad that we sought out one of the world’s greatest musicologists before we made any moves. You see how long it took! I wanted this to be done correctly. I don’t know if I’m allowed to say [the musicologist’s] name.

But he was sufficiently convinced that there was enough similarity between the two songs?
Yes, and all of that will come out.

Did you follow the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit, that the Gaye family levied against Robin Thicke, which sort of set the precedent for this?
I’m gonna be honest with you, I heard about it, I listened to it, but when it came down to all the media and the hoopla, no, I didn’t. I literally work seven days a week, and my whole focus has basically been, for a very long time, directly on what I do [for work]. I mean, the youngest child I ever took off a [stripper] pole was nine years old. What I do is very intense, and very serious… It takes a lot of energy each and every day to deal with that.

So that’s another reason why I’m not even following all the stuff in the media now. It’s just not about any of that. It’s not about looking for fame, it’s just about doing the right thing. And this is why I really wanted, and still want, to sit down with Ed Sheeran. But his attorneys just snubbed us like we weren’t important. And for too long, there’s been too many people who just take other people’s work, and don’t go about it the right way.

So the “Blurred Lines” lawsuit didn’t have anything to do with your actual decision to file yourself?
No! That’s the reason why I did not want to file, because I did not want people confused, thinking that it was the Gayes’ doing. It’s not them, they have nothing to do with this.

Are you allowed to say what you’re seeking in terms of damages, or anything else, from Sheeran’s camp?
I have no idea. I want by law what is fair. I’m personally not the expert on any of that, I don’t know the [sales details]. There are other people that are experts in that area. I literally stay in my lane.

And I still wish Mr. Sheeran all of the best. I really think he comes off as a really nice guy. I’m so devastated that he wouldn’t… I think they didn’t allow him to talk to me. I was even at a concert, trying to talk to him, but I was advised that he could not speak to me.

Do you like his song?
I like “Let’s Get It On,” and I like the fact that he chose to use the heart of the song. Which of course, attracted so many people. And then there’s a whole generation — there’s people I’ve talked to, these youngsters, who don’t even know who Marvin Gaye is! They’re like, “That’s not the same song!”

But you know what, I think he’s a talented person, I do like the song. I’d like the song better if he does right by my father’s work. And I want my father’s name added as one of the writers. If you’re going to use the music, be fair! Be fair, that’s all.