Pattishall IP Blog

March 16, 2015

‘Blurred Lines’ Verdict Creates Unpredictable Music Copyright Landscape

Filed under: Copyright — Tags: , , , , , — Pattishall, McAuliffe, Newbury, Hilliard & Geraldson LLP @ 3:47 pm

Jason Koransky F HRby Jason Koransky, Associate

The recent verdict that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ hit “Blurred Lines” infringed the copyright to the late Motown legend Marvin Gaye’s composition “Got To Give It Up” has generated significant media attention.[1] And this coverage has certainly been compounded by the eye-popping $7.4 million in damages the California jury awarded Gaye’s heirs.

Controversy and debate have raged about whether the jury was correct, with the primary issue being whether Thicke and Williams actually copied “Got To Give It Up,” or were simply inspired by Gaye’s late-’70s soul/funk composition. Of course, copyright protection does not extend to a musical idea, genre, or overall “feel” of a song. Rather, copyright protects a musical expression fixed in a tangible medium — here, the written composition filed with the U.S. Copyright Office for “Got To Give It Up.” (Gaye’s estate does not own the copyright to the sound recording of “Got To Give It Up,” and thus could not assert that “Blurred Lines” infringed the recording.)

Thicke and Williams made this idea vs. expression dichotomy the primary issue in their complaint for a declaratory judgment of non-infringement: “Being reminiscent of a ‘sound’ is not copyright infringement. The intent in producing ‘Blurred Lines’ was to evoke an era. In reality, the Gaye defendants are claiming ownership of an entire genre, as opposed to a specific work . . . .”

The jury disagreed with this argument. Weighing evidence such as competing expert testimony, recordings of the compositions (interestingly, the judge only allowed the jury to hear a new recording of Gaye’s composition that was made for the litigation and which was based on the music filed with the Copyright Office), and testimony from Thicke and Williams regarding the creation of “Blurred Lines,” the jury found that Thicke and Williams incorporated too many elements of “Got To Give It Up” into “Blurred Lines,” such that it crossed the line from “inspired by” to “copying.”

Does this verdict represent a slippery slope in copyright law, in which songwriters now have grounds to plead infringement when another composition has a similar “feel” but does not actually copy a song? Further, could this decision extend to other media, such as film, literary works, or photography, in which new works are often inspired by those which precede them? (more…)

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