“Blurred Lines” Jury Ruling Unlikely to Set Legal Precedent in Music Industry

Copyright conflicts in the music industry will likely continue to settle out of court rather than risk trial by laymen unfamiliar with industry practices and the nuances of copyright law.
March 30, 2015

Please see fellow Senior Staff Writer Kristina DiBenedetto’s article, “Even Blurrier Lines,” for another viewpoint on this issue.

On Tuesday, March 10th, a California federal jury determined that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams had non-willfully plagiarized Marvin Gaye’s 1977 funk hit, “Got to Give It Up,” in creating their own 2013 top-of-the-charts anthem, “Blurred Lines.” The jury awarded the Gaye family a cumulative $7.3 million in damages and song profits.[1]

Amidst murmurs from the Gaye family, Thicke and Williams brought the original copyright suit to court in 2014, seeking a declaratory judgment to protect themselves against possible infringement claims. In response to the declaratory claims, the Gaye family quickly countersued, spawning the litigation that ultimately resulted in last week’s hefty jury verdict.[2]

In his closing argument, Howard E. King, an attorney for Thicke and Williams, contended that a verdict against the two contemporary artists would be detrimental to the music industry, forcing record labels to shirk from producing or releasing projects that might bear similarities to other music.[3] Richard Busch, the lead attorney for the Gaye family, rebutted, “While Mr. Williams’ lawyer suggested … that the world would come to an end, and music would cease to exist if [his clients] were found liable … [t]he music industry will go on.”[4]

Indeed, most in the legal profession agree that the “Blurred Lines” case was limited to its facts and will therefore be unlikely to set legal precedent. Nevertheless, in light of the verdict, some intellectual property attorneys note that “prominent artists may need to begin using counsel to review their works before they are released to buffer against infringement claims, as is commonly done for television and film scripts.” [5]

Many copyright attorneys, however, note that the case most importantly serves as a cautionary tale for artists. Even artists with a strong case, who seek to pursue legal remedies in court and by jury, run the risk of trial by laymen unfamiliar with the nuances of copyright law.[6]

The music industry is known for its traditional, extra-judicial settlement of similar cases, like the vastly reported dispute between Sam Smith and Tom Petty, which were settled earlier this year.[7] Copyright experts advise music industry lawyers to continue taking this well-trodden route of alternate dispute resolution rather than face the American jury in court.[8]

[1] See Ben Sisario & Noah Smith, ‘Blurred Lines’ Infringed on Marvin Gaye Copyright, Jury Rules, N.Y. Times, Mar. 3, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/11/business/media/blurred-lines-infringed-on-marvin-gaye-copyright-jury-rules.html.

[2] Williams v. Bridgeport Music, Inc., 2014 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 182240 (C.D. Cal. Oct. 30, 2014).

[3] See Anthony McCartney, ‘Blurred Lines’ Verdict Likely to Alter Music Business, At Law Blog (Mar. 11, 2015), http://www.atlawblog.com, available at Lexis.

[4] Supra, note 3.

[5] See Daniel Siegal, $7.4M 'Blurred Lines' Award Sounds Risk Of IP Jury Trials, Law360 (Mar. 11, 2015 at 6:25PM).

[6] Supra, note 5 (“Field said he thought the real takeaway from the case was that Williams and Thicke brought the dispute into the courts with their declaratory judgment action and lost…”).

[7] See Josh Dickey, Marvin Gaye Family Awarded $7.4 Million in ‘Blurred Lines’ Trial, Mashable, Mar. 10, 2015, http://mashable.com/2015/03/10/blurred-lines-trial-verdict.

[8] Supra, note 5.

Sandra Rubinchik is a 2L interested in media, tech, and dumplings. If you have a few hours to spare, ask her about the Scripps National Spelling Bee.