In March, a jury awarded Marvin Gaye’s children nearly $7.4 million after rendering a verdict that singers Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams plagiarized Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up” to create “Blurred Lines,” the longest-running number one single of 2013.Now, a federal judge has modified the verdict, trimming more than $2 million off the singers’ liability, but also giving Gaye’s family 50% of the song’s future royalties. Thicke and Williams both sought a new trial, and Gaye’s family moved for an injunction that would have blocked sales and performances of Blurred Lines; all three requests were denied, with the judge instead arriving at what he perceived to be the more equitable conclusion of reducing infringement damages while providing Gaye’s estate with a share of future profits.
Thicke and Williams, who each earned more than $7 million apiece on “Blurred Lines,” claim to have written the song independently, but Gaye’s estate argued that a number of distinct elements from “Got to Give It Up” were used in “Blurred Lines.” It was ultimately left up to the jury to determine whether the defendants infringed upon Gaye’s copyright or simply emulated the sound of Gaye’s work. The jury concluded that “Blurred Lines” infringed on Gaye’s copyright, leading to a great deal of debate regarding the distinction between plagiarism and mere influence of another song or genre.
It is important to note that certain aspects of a musical composition are protectable by copyright, such as particular arrangements of notes and harmonies, while others are not, such as style, feel, or the timbre of a certain combination of instruments. In this case, it would be naïve to believe that Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” did not influence Thicke and Williams in crafting “Blurred Lines,” but copyright protection is not intended to extend to mere influence. While particular expressions of musical ideas can be protected, the ideas themselves, such as, for example, pairing an electric piano and a cowbell with a disco beat, cannot. These important points seem to have gotten lost in this case.
The judge’s willingness to modify the verdict while also denying the parties’ motions for a new trial serves to highlight the controversy surrounding the court’s initial decision. On its face, “Blurred Lines” simply doesn’t infringe on Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” an opinion that appears to be extremely prevalent among those with musical training. This recent development may be a recognition of that fact, while still attempting to give some teeth to current copyright protections. Either way, it will be interesting to see whether the chilling effect on songwriting that has been forecast by some in the industry will play out.