On March 10, 2015, a California federal jury awarded Marvin Gaye’s children nearly $7.4 million after deciding that pop stars, Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, copied Gaye’s 1977 song, “Got to Give It Up,” in writing their 2013 chart-topping hit, “Blurred Lines.” “Blurred Lines” was the best-selling single in the world in 2013, selling more than 7 million copies in the United States alone.
This verdict is the outcome of a preemptive action filed by Williams, Thicke and Clifford Harris, Jr. in August 2013, which sought a declaratory judgment that “Blurred Lines” did not infringe the Gaye children’s inherited copyright to “Got to Give it Up”. In response, Gaye’s heirs counterclaimed for copyright infringement. Such copyright infringement lawsuits are commonplace in the music industry but, unlike this case, the majority of these lawsuits settle and never make it to trial.
Prior to trial, in October 2014, Judge John Kronstadt, of the United States District Court for the Central District of California, ruled that Gaye’s heirs’ copyrights extend only to the written sheet music, or “deposit copy,” of Marvin Gaye’s songs filed with the Library of Congress (including “Got to Give It Up”), but not the sound recordings of his music.
During trial, the jury heard testimony from musicologist expert witness, Judith Finell, who opined on the alleged similarities between “Blurred Lines” and the copyrighted work. Thicke and Williams challenged Finnell’s testimony on the basis that it initially emphasized similarities in the unprotectable sound recordings rather than the copyrighted sheet music. Finell also testified, however, that there were eight substantially similar elements in the written compositions of “Got to Give It Up” and “Blurred Lines.” The jury agreed that the two works were substantially similar thus supporting a copyright infringement finding against Thicke and Williams.
The jury’s determination represents a notable outcome in in a highly-publicized legal controversy. If upheld, this verdict could have a significant impact on copyright infringement litigation in the music industry moving forward, especially since Gaye’s heirs were successful in establishing infringement even without the jury directly comparing the sound recordings for substantial similarity.