It’s one of the most notorious music copyright infringement lawsuits in history – and it’s going to stay that way.
The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has today (March 21) upheld a 2015 verdict which concludes that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ 2013 hit Blurred Lines infringed on the copyright attributed to Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song Got To Give It Up.
The appeals court panel handed down a split decision which actually disagreed with comments from one of the case’s judges, who stated that the two tracks “differed in melody, harmony, and rhythm”. She added that the ruling “strikes a devastating blow to future musicians and composers everywhere”.
The Ninth Circuit panel voted 2-1 to retain the most recent verdict against Thicke and Williams, which sees them liable for $5.3m in damages.
Those damages, paid to the Gaye Estate, break down like this: $3,188,528 in actual damages, plus profits of $1,768,192 against Thicke and $357,631 against Williams (and More Water from Nazareth Publishing, which collects royalties on Williams’ behalf).
In addition, the Gayes will receive a running royalty of 50% of future songwriter and publishing revenues from Blurred Lines.
The appeals court did, however, clear Clifford “TI” Harris and Interscope Records of any infringement.
“We have decided this case on narrow grounds,” U.S. Circuit Judge Milan D. Smith wrote, as you can read in the full ruling through here.
US Circuit Judge Jacqueline Nguyen strongly objected to the ruling, however, arguing that the Marvin Gaye Estate was able to “accomplish what no one has before: copyright a musical style.”
“The Gayes, no doubt, are pleased by this outcome. They shouldn’t be. They own copyrights in many musical works, each of which (including “Got to Give It Up”) now potentially infringes the copyright of any famous song that preceded it.”
Judge Jacqueline Nguyen
“‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Got to Give It Up’ are not objectively similar,” she wrote. “They differ in melody, harmony, and rhythm. Yet by refusing to compare the two works, the majority establishes a dangerous precedent that strikes a devastating blow to future musicians and composers everywhere.”
She added: “The Gayes, no doubt, are pleased by this outcome. They shouldn’t be. They own copyrights in many musical works, each of which (including “Got to Give It Up”) now potentially infringes the copyright of any famous song that preceded it… That is the consequence of the majority’s uncritical deference to music experts.”
Nguyen further added: “Admittedly, it can be very challenging for judges untrained in music to parse two pieces of sheet music for extrinsic similarity. But however difficult this exercise, we cannot simply defer to the conclusions of experts about the ultimate finding of substantial similarity.
“While experts are invaluable in identifying and explaining elements that appear in both works, judges must still decide whether, as a matter of law, these elements collectively support a finding of substantial similarity. Here, they don’t, and the verdict should be vacated.”
Thicke, Williams, and Harris co-own the musical composition copyright in Blurred Lines.
Star Trak and Interscope Records co-own the sound recording of the track, while Universal Music Distribution manufactured and distributed it.
[Download the full March 31 US Appeals Court ruling through here.]Music Business Worldwide