Please see fellow Senior Staff Writer Sandra Rubinchik’s article, “Blurred Lines” Jury Ruling Unlikely to Set Legal Precedent in Music Industry, for another viewpoint on this issue.
Tuesday, March 10, 2015, Robin Thick and Pharrell Williams lost their copyright infringement suit against Marvin Gaye’s children. The suit centered over Thick and Williams’ song, “Blurred Lines,” which was the best-selling single in the world in 2013, and Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up.” Gaye’s children asserted “Blurred Lines” copied “Got to Give It Up,” and stole important aspects of the musical work in order to profit off Gaye. The jury agreed, awarding Gaye’s children $7.36 million dollars in damages. This suit began almost two years earlier, in August 2013, when Thicke and Williams initiated suit seeking a declaratory judgment that their song was noninfringing after receiving accusations from the Gaye family.
Under United States copyright law, artists creating a sound recording need to consider two main licenses. First, an artist needs a license from the original composer of the musical work, usually displayed in sheet music. Second, if an artist intends to physically reproduce a previously recorded version of a song, he must also get a license from the record company. In the event the artist wants to re-record his own version of the song, the artist must get a compulsory license under 17 U.S.C. §115 or pursue a Harry Fox Mechanical license.
In evaluating the initial declaratory judgment case, the U.S. California District Judge held that Gaye’s heirs’ copyrights only extended to the written sheet music, and not to the recordings themselves. The court subsequently ruled in favor of Thicke and Williams, finding that the “copyright sheet music did not contain many of the musical elements” of “Blurred Lines.” The jury, however, disagreed. After a six-day trial, hearing testimony and performances by Thicke and Williams, as well as analysis from musicologist expert witness, Judith Finell, the jury found there was substantial similarities between the two songs, and delivered a verdict for Gaye’s children.
This result came as a surprise to artist, Pharrell Williams, who argued throughout the case that the song was the result of his own creativity. There is certainly a possibility that the artists will appeal this ruling, and there may even be a reversal. One juror told Law360 that the jury “put significant weight on Finnell’s testimony.” However, Finnell only found infringement in the sheet music after first spending more than a year reviewing the similarity between the sound records. Significantly, the similarity between the sound recordings is irrelevant, seeing as though the Gaye children are not entitled to copyright protection over the recordings. Furthermore, the excerpts of the two songs played in front of the jury, prepared by Finnell, featured an altered pitch in “Blurred Lines” and many elements from Gaye’s song were taken away. Williams’ testified that if the two songs were going to be played at all, they should be played in their original sound.
This case has the potential to set poor precedent in the music industry going forward. While both Williams and Thick admitted to being inspired by Gaye’s music, they insisted that “Blurred Lines” was the result of Williams’ own heart and soul. If courts continue to focus on the inspiration for sounds, rather than the sounds themselves, creativity in the music business will seriously diminish. Countless singers and songwriters speak of the inspiration they get from other songs and artists, and it would certainly stunt creativity to prohibit this type of behavior. Effectively, this result “could have a chilling effect on musicians who try to emulate an era” or “homage to another artist’s sound.”