“Blurred Lines” Infringement Verdict Appeal Falls Flat

Blurred Lines on Bobby Owsinski's Music 3.0 blogWhen the verdict in the 2015 copyright infringement trial brought by the Marvin Gaye estate against the writers of the Robin Thicke hit “Blurred Lines” was reached, most of the music industry shuddered. While some of the flavor of the Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” hit of 1977 was captured on the “Blurred Lines” track, the melody, lyrics and arrangement were different, something that even the trial judge admitted. Yet the judge found in favor of the Gaye estate, which set up an appeal that most industry experts expected Thicke and company to win. That wasn’t the case, as the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that it won’t order a new trial and affirmed damage awards against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams in a 2 to 1 decision.

Basically the appeal was on a technicality about how the judge in the original trial came to the decision. According to the Hollywood Reporter, “Ultimately, the majority opinion states that the verdict wasn’t against the clear weight of evidence and won’t disturb fact-finding at trial and second-guess the jury. The affirmation of what happened three years ago is on narrow grounds. We conclude that the district court did not abuse its discretion in denying the Thicke Parties’ motion for a new trial,” writes [Judge Milan D.] Smith.” “You can read the entire ruling here.

US Circuit Judge Jacqueline Nguyen did not agree with the decision, however, and wrote, “‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Got to Give It Up’ are not objectively similar. 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 went on, “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.” She 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.”

Bottom line is that songwriters, publishers and labels were already walking on eggs when it came to songwriting credits and publishing splits as a result of the original 2015 verdict, giving credit to any song that was even remotely similar so as to not suffer an infringement lawsuit. That practice will no doubt continue as writers have to be ever more cautious of where their inspiration comes from.

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