Last week, a jury in California ordered musicians Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams to pay $7.4 million total forcopyright damages plus profits attributable to infringement. Both escaped statutory damages as the infringement was found not to be willful. The copyright infringement was for their song “Blurred Lines,” which the court found to be improperly drawn from Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up.”
Issues at Trial
The attorney for Mr. Thicke and Mr. Williams argued that artists need considerable latitude in their creative pursuits. During opening arguments, he told the jury, “We’re going to show you what you already know: that no one owns a genre or a style or a groove. To be inspired by Marvin Gaye is an honorable thing.”
He also stressed during the case that Marvin Gaye’s children, Frankie and Nona Gaye, only owned compositional elements in the “Got to Give It Up” sheet music, but did not own more recognizable elements of the recording like the percussion and singing. Finally, he had witnesses testify to similarities and differences of“Blurred Lines” and “Got To Give It Up” as well as the similarities to other famous songs.
The attorney for the Gayes stressed to the jury that they need to overcome the celebrity charisma of the defendants in the case. Their side suffered a setback before the trial began when the judge precluded use of the original sound recording of “Got to Give It Up” because Gaye’s copyrights on the song were limited to the sheet music compositions. Instead, the attorney for Frankie and Nona Gaye leaned on the expertise of musicologists, who testified to the signature phrase, hook, keyboard-bass interplay, lyrics and theme of the songs.
Impact on Songwriting Industry
The verdict in this trial sent a message to the songwriting industry that inspiration from one song can rise to the level of copyright infringement in another. While copyright infringement cases are common in this industry, few ever actually get to trial. The furthest that arecent case has come to trial was between Tom Petty and Sam Smith for the song, “Stay with Me,” which settled before opening statements. Most never get past the summary judgment phase because judges carefully draw the line on any lawsuits alleging misappropriation of non-protectable ideas.
However, this multi-million dollar lawsuit also spoke to how the success of a song can affect the award. So far, “Blurred Lines” has made over $16.7 million in profits alone. In total, $5.6 million in profits have gone to Mr. Thicke, $5.2 million to Mr. Williams, $700K to T.I., and the rest of the $16.7 million in overall profits to record companies.
Contact a Copyright Attorney
If you have questions regarding your own copyright or the works of another in Pleasanton, Alameda County, or the Tri-Valley area let the experienced intellectual property attorneys atGarcia & Gurney help. Call the office orcontact us today for a confidential consultation of your case.