Why it matters: On July 14, 2015, the federal judge in the landmark Blurred Lines copyright infringement case issued rulings on various post-trial motions that had been filed by both sides in the conflict. While denying the motion filed by "Blurred Lines" co-composers Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams seeking a new trial or other declaratory relief from the March 10, 2015, jury verdict against them, the judge did grant their request for remittitur, or relief from an excessive jury damage award, which served to reduce the almost $7.4 million in damages awarded by the jury to Marvin Gaye's children by approximately $2 million, to $5.4 million. In addition, the judge agreed that Gaye's children are entitled to 50% of the royalties from the song "Blurred Lines" going forward.
Detailed discussion: On July 14, 2015, District Court Judge John A. Kronstadt for the Central District of California ruled on numerous post-trial motions that had been filed by both sides in the landmark copyright infringement case of Pharrell Williams, et al. v. Bridgeport Music, Inc., et al.To briefly recap, after a seven-day trial, on March 10, 2015, a federal jury found recording artists and co-composers Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams liable for copyright infringement, finding that their song "Blurred Lines" unlawfully copied portions of deceased artist Marvin Gaye's song "Got to Give It Up." The jury awarded Gaye's adult children damages aggregating almost $7.4 million, consisting of $4 million in actual damages plus profit amounts found to have been received by Thicke (approximately $1.8 million) and Williams (approximately $1.6 million). The jury found co-composer Calvin Harris, Jr. and Interscope Records, Universal Music Group and other companies involved in the song's manufacture and distribution, also part of the suit, not liable for copyright infringement.
On May 1, 2015, Thicke, Williams and Williams' music publishing company filed a motion seeking a new trial and/or other declaratory relief, and remittitur (relief from an excessive jury verdict). Also on May 1, the Gaye parties filed motions with the court, seeking (1) declarations or judgments as a matter of law that not only the Thicke parties but also Harris and the Interscope parties were liable for copyright infringement, (2) injunctive relief or, in the alternative, ongoing royalties from the continued distribution of "Blurred Lines" and (3) prejudgment interest.
Judge Kronstadt first addressed the portion of the Thicke parties' motion seeking a new trial and/or other declaratory relief. After reviewing the applicable law and applying it to the facts, Judge Kronstadt held that "[t]he Thicke Parties have not shown any evidentiary or instructional error that warrants either a new trial or other relief. The verdict of the jury was supported by substantial evidence. The Thicke Parties have not demonstrated that the verdict was against the clear weight of the evidence, based upon false evidence, or reflects a miscarriage of justice. For these reasons, the Thicke Parties' request for judgment as a matter of law, declaratory relief or a new trial is DENIED."
Judge Kronstadt next addressed the Thicke parties' request for remittitur, or relief from an excessive jury award. First, he cited Supreme Court and Ninth Circuit case precedent regarding the applicable law of remittitur before tackling the award of $4 million in actual damages that the Thicke parties argued, among other things, was "excessive and not supported by the evidence." The judge noted that, at trial, the following facts were stipulated by the parties: (1) total profits for the song "Blurred Lines" were $16,675,690, (2) Thicke was credited with $5,658,214 of those profits, consisting of artist royalties of $4,253,645 and publishing revenues of $1,404,569, (3) Williams was credited with $5,153,457 of those profits, consisting of producer royalties of $860,333 and publishing revenues of $4,293,124 and (4) Harris was credited with $704,774 of those profits, consisting of artist royalties of $25,412 and publishing revenues of $679,362. Combined, the amount of publishing revenues attributed to all three artists was $6,377,055, which amount was net of professional fees paid to accountants, lawyers and managers. The Gaye parties' accounting expert testified at trial, however, that the amount of combined publishing revenues without subtraction of the professional fees was "a little bit over $8 million." It was this higher $8 million figure that was used in a clarification to the jury in response to their question about how actual damages are calculated: "The parties agreed that approximately $8 million was received by the writers of 'Blurred Lines' in publishing revenue. In calculating actual damages, it is the $8 million you should take into consideration. If you decide to consider awarding profits, you should not take into consideration the same $8 million." The Thicke parties argued post-trial that the $8 million amount in the response was "grossly inaccurate" because it was inclusive of the professional fees paid out and that the stipulated amount of $6,377,055 in publishing revenues for the three composers was the proper amount that should have been used. The judge agreed. Applying the "hypothetical license" royalty rate of 50% to the lower stipulated amount of $6,377,055, he found that the greatest amount of actual damages that could have been awarded by the jury was $3,188,527.50 and reduced the actual damages award to this amount.
The judge next found that the award of profits from Williams was excessive (he found that the award of profits from Thicke was appropriately calculated). Noting that the stipulated amount of producer's royalties attributable to Williams was $860,333, the jury awarded the Gaye parties profits from Williams of $1,610,455.31 or "approximately 187% of the amount of the producer royalties to which the parties stipulated." The judge rejected the Gaye parties' arguments (raised post-trial) that Thicke and Williams were "practical partners" and thus their royalties should be combined in determining the profit award. Applying an approximate 40% royalty rate to the stipulated amount of Williams' producer royalties, the judge reduced the amount of profits awarded from Williams to $357,630.96. Thus, the total amount of the remittitur in favor of the Thicke parties came to $2,064.296.85.
The judge next turned to the Gaye parties' motions. He first considered their motion for declaratory relief, which he granted in full. The judge declared as a matter of law that the Thicke parties "infringed the Gaye Parties' copyright in the musical composition 'Got to Give It Up' in 'Blurred Lines.' " He found the declaration to be warranted because "to the extent the jury verdict did not do so, a declaration would put the Thicke Parties and others on notice of the legal consequences of the continued use and exploitation of 'Blurred Lines.' " The judge next considered the liability for copyright infringement of Harris and the Interscope parties. Even though the jury had found them not liable, the Gaye parties argued that this was due to improper jury instructions regarding the liability of distributors of infringed works. The judge agreed, ruling that "[i]t was error not to instruct the jury that the distribution of infringing works constitutes copyright infringement .… Therefore, the verdict of no liability as to [Harris and the Interscope Parties] was plainly erroneous, and the Gaye Parties are entitled to a judgment as a matter of law against Harris and the Interscope Parties." The judge also issued a declaration, for purposes of clarity in light of the song's continued exploitation, that Harris and the Interscope parties were liable for any infringement of "Got to Give It Up" in "Blurred Lines" going forward. The judge concluded by finding judgment in favor of the Gaye parties and against the Thicke parties, Harris and the Interscope parties, declaring as a matter of law that "any past and ongoing reproduction, preparation of derivative works, distribution, sale or other transfer of ownership, rental, lease, lending or public performance of 'Blurred Lines,' or authorization of any of these activities, by [Thicke, Williams, Harris, or the Interscope Parties] infringes the Gaye Parties' copyright in 'Got to Give It Up.' "
The judge then considered the Gaye parties' motion for injunctive relief or, in the alternative, ongoing royalties from the continued exploitation of "Blurred Lines." While the judge denied their request for injunctive relief, he found that the Gaye parties were entitled to a "running royalty" of 50% of the songwriter and publishing revenue of "Blurred Lines" going forward, commencing on the date judgment in the case was entered. Finally, the judge ruled that the Gaye parties were entitled to prejudgment interest from March 10, 2015 (the day of the jury's verdict) through the date judgment was entered at the statutory rate.
Richard Busch, one of the attorneys for the Gaye parties, stated that they were "thrilled with the decision by the Court not only affirming the decision of the jury that Mr. Thicke and Mr. Williams committed copyright infringement, but also the decision holding Mr. Harris and [the Interscope Parties] liable as well, and ordering that the defendants pay the Gaye family 50 percent of all publishing revenue from 'Blurred Lines' going forward. As far as the reduction in damages, we are reviewing that, and the Court's analysis on that issue, and will be discussing internally our options." Countered Howard King, one of the attorneys for the Thicke parties, "[w]hile we certainly respect the diligence and care devoted by the Court throughout these proceedings, we must agree to disagree on the conclusions. We look forward to exercising our further remedies and ultimately achieving clarity on the difference between inspiration and copyright infringement."
Click here to read the 7/14/15 opinion in Pharrell Williams, et al. v. Bridgeport Music, et al., LA CV13-06004 (JAK).