Roughly a year and a half after the highly controversial March 2015 jury verdict awarding Marvin Gaye’s children nearly $7.4 million in a copyright infringement lawsuit against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, the “Blurred Lines” case is in the news again. Over two hundred songwriters, composers, musicians, and producers joined in the filing of an amicus brief in support of Thicke and Williams, who have appealed the verdict.Following a trial in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, a jury concluded that Thick and Williams plagiarized Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up” to create “Blurred Lines,” the longest-running number one single of 2013. In July of 2015, the judgment was trimmed down to $5.3 million, and Gaye’s heirs were granted half of all future royalties from “Blurred Lines.” Thicke and Williams filed a notice of appeal that December.
The recent and overwhelming support of this appeal by the music community comes in the wake of a verdict that essentially creates artist liability for the creation of new works that are merely inspired by prior works, even unwittingly, rather than actually copied or plagiarized. The brief, whose signatories include members of Earth, Wind & Fire, Linkin Park, Weezer, Hall & Oates, and solo artists such as R. Kelly and Jennifer Hudson, points out that “by eliminating any meaningful standard for drawing the line between permissible inspiration and unlawful copying, the judgment is certain to stifle creativity and impede the creative process.”
While certain aspects of a musical composition are protectable by copyright, such as particular arrangements of notes and harmonies, others are not, such as style, feel, or the timbre of a certain combination of instruments. It became apparent early on that the verdict in this case relied almost exclusively on those non-protectable elements, as jurors seemed to pay more heed to stylistic similarities than the fact that Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” and Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” are otherwise distinguishable works. Many artists forecast the possibility of this controversial verdict having a chilling effect on songwriting going forward. The filing of this amicus brief to overturn this result shows just how widespread that sentiment is throughout the music community.
Frank Gulino is an award-winning composer and attorney with Berenzweig Leonard, LLP. He can be reached at [email protected]