22 March 2018Copyright

Marvin Gaye’s family wins $5.3m ‘Blurred Lines’ appeal

Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ hit song “Blurred Lines” infringed the copyright of one of Marvin Gaye’s songs, according to an appeals court.

In a split opinion, issued yesterday, March 21, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a $5.3 million judgment against Thicke and Williams, finding that their hit song infringed Gaye’s 1977 tune “Got To Give It Up”.

Circuit Judge Milan Smith delivered the majority opinion, finding that Gaye’s song was entitled to “broad” copyright protection. Circuit Judge Mary Murguia concurred.

A jury at the US District Court for the Central District of California had awarded the family of Motown singer Gaye $7.4 million in March 2015, finding that the 2013 hit song infringed Gaye’s copyright.

During the trial, Williams said “Blurred Lines” may “channel the ‘70s feeling”, but “to feel isn’t copyright infringement”.

The creators of “Blurred Lines” requested that the court rehear the copyright case. They claimed that they did not receive a fair trial, as shown by the award of damages which was “unsupported by any evidence”.

The district court rejected calls for a retrial but reduced the damages to $5.3 million in July 2015. Gaye’s family were also awarded 50% of the future royalties from “Blurred Lines”.

Williams and Thicke filed to appeal against the ruling in August 2016, garnering the support of more than 200 musicians.

The artists, including Danger Mouse, Fall Out Boy, and Train, filed an amicus brief claiming that there would be an adverse impact on artist’s creativity if the judgment was allowed to stand. The brief said that the verdict threatened to punish songwriters for creating new music inspired by prior works.

Yesterday, the Ninth Circuit upheld the jury verdict and the reduced award of $5.3 million damages, because there was “not an absolute absence of evidence” that the two songs were similar.

Smith referred to the sentiment expressed in the amicus brief as “unfounded hyperbole” and said that the decision doesn’t upset the balance between copyright protection and freedom of artistic expression.

Thicke and Williams had argued that the copyright of the Gaye family was limited to sheet music, under the Copyright Act 1909, so did not extend to sound recordings, but Smith disagreed, explaining that “musical compositions are not confined to a narrow range of expression”.

The future award of royalties was also upheld.

In her dissent, Circuit Judge Jacqueline Nguyen said that the decision allowed the Gaye family to “accomplish what no one has before: copyright a music style”.

Nyugen added that by “improperly” allowing the Gaye family to copyright a music style, the decision expands the potential for copyright litigation in the music industry.

According to Nguyen “Blurred Lines” and “Got To Give It Up” are “not objectively similar” as the songs differ in terms of melody, harmony, and rhythm. She added that the majority decision fails to specify exactly which elements of “Got To Give It Up” are protectable.

“There is no evidentiary basis to conclude that the two works are substantially similar”, she concluded.

Richard Busch, partner at King & Ballow, represented the Gaye family in the matter and said they are "delighted" with the decision. The majority opinion suggests that the Gaye family was correct in claiming that compositional copyright extends to musical elements found in the commercial sound recording, he explained.

Speaking to WIPR he claimed that "despite the protests of the Williams’ camp that the decision somehow stifles creativity, the opposite is true".

The decision "not only protects songwriters’ works from being unlawfully copied without payment or credit, but encourages today’s writers to create original work that does not take advantage of the success of others while pawning it off as their own”, Busch concluded.

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More on this story

11 March 2015   A US court has ordered the writers of hit song Blurred Lines to pay late soul singer Marvin Gaye’s family more than $7 million after it a jury said the song infringed his copyright.
5 May 2015   Musicians Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke have requested a US court rehear the "Blurred Lines" copyright case that demanded they pay $7.3 million in damages to Marvin Gaye’s family.
12 July 2018   US musicians Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams have been denied a rehearing in a copyright infringement case involving a Marvin Gaye song.