In a widely publicized case, the Estate of Marvin Gaye recently won its lawsuit against Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke, and T.I. for copyright infringement, alleging that their hit song “Blurred Lines” infringes upon Gaye’s earlier work “Got to Give It Up.”
In a verdict that will undoubtedly have unexpected ramifications across the legal landscape of the music industry, a jury in L.A. found that the songs were too similar, and that the modern hit infringed on the composition of the classic. While the decision was bad for Pharrell & Co. (the judge has ordered them to pay the Gaye Estate $7.4 million), the decision may be even worse for the music industry at large because it creates uncertainty and will stifle innovation. According to Matt Larson, a Bloomberg Intelligence litigation analyst, the decision will send shockwaves across the industry that will stifle creativity.
The results of the case are troubling because they rest on an unfounded extension of copyright doctrine. In order to make out a claim for copyright infringement, the injured party must generally demonstrate that a) there was actual copying of the underlying work, and b) that such copying was to the extent that it amounts to improper appropriation.
In this case, the complaint alleged that there was no actual copying of the allegedly infringed work. Therefore, it seems evident that the Gaye Estate failed to prove all of the elements of their case. Indeed, at trial, multiple expert witnesses testified to the distinctness of the composition by comparing the melodies and other copyrightable aspects of both works (of course, Gaye’s family had experts decrying just the opposite).
Therefore, what we are left with are two songs that sound sort-of alike and a decision that ignores the certainty of sound application of copyright doctrine. While conceding to admiring Marvin Gaye’s music, the “Blurred” songwriters stood by the claim that they composed an entirely original work, and that the most that can be said is that Gaye’s music inspired them. The inference is that mere inspiration now amounts to copyright infringement, which, if continued, will not only stifle creativity but will also create uncertainty in the law.
The effects of the “Blurred Lines” case are already being felt. These effects are shown by the recent developments surrounding Mark Ronson’s recent hit “Uptown Funk,” which has had its share of problems, recently settling disputes and added 5 new songwriters from the Gab Band’s “Oops Upside Your Head.”
According to Danny Zook, the manager Trinidad James (whose work “All Gold Everything,” which was sampled on Uptown Funk, allegedly infringes upon the Gap Band’s work), the “Blurred Lines” decision has altered feelings on songwriting credits in the music industry. “Everyone is being a little more cautious. Nobody wants to be involved in a lawsuit,” he said. “Once a copyright dispute goes to a trial, it is subject to be decided by public opinion – and no longer resolved based entirely on copyright law.”
The “Blurred Lines” case was wrongly decided, and should be reversed. Until such time, the decision will cause more uncertainty and confusion regarding the music industry’s already cumbersome legal framework. Unfortunately, this uncertainty and confusion will probably lead to unfair results.
Not surprisingly, the Williams/Thicke camp has appealed the decision, claiming that they are doing so not just on financial but also on moral grounds. In their words, “[w]e owe it to songwriters around the world to make sure this verdict doesn’t stand.”