In 2015 we reported on a US court ruling in which Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ hit single, ‘Blurred Lines’ (2013), was found to infringe copyright in Marvin Gaye’s hit ‘Got To Give It Up’ (1977).
Insisting that they didn’t copy Gaye’s song, Thicke and Williams appealed the decision.
A blurred decision
The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, headed by three panel judges, has now upheld the decision by a two-to-one majority, ordering $5.3m (£4.2m) in damages to the family of the late Gaye. Gaye’s family will also receive half of all future songwriter and publishing revenues from Blurred Lines. The deadline for taking the case to the Supreme Court has now passed, making the decision final.
To win a US copyright lawsuit, the claimant must show that they own a valid copyright, that the defendant actually copied the work and that the copying amounted to misappropriation. A doctrine of ‘substantial similarity’ is used to show that the copying took place after access to the original work has been demonstrated.
In the present case, two of the judges considered that Blurred Lines was substantially similar to Got To Give It Up. The other judge disagreed, saying that the songs “differed in melody, harmony and rhythm”.
Have a listen — what do you think?
Famous cases of musical copyright infringement
This isn’t the first (and it’s by no means the last) case we’ll hear on musical copyright infringement in the US.
Since the Blurred Lines ruling, there have been a number of similar cases against artists including Bruno Mars, Ed Sheeran, Madonna and Miley Cyrus. The Gaye family recently filed a claim against Ed Sheeran for alleged copyright infringement of the Marvin Gaye hit ‘Let’s Get It On’ in Sheeran’s song ‘Thinking Out Loud’.
The copyright debate
Such examples have added fuel to the debate on the measures that are in place to protect the creative interests of an artist in copyright law.
In 2016, Vanilla Ice famously settled out-of-court when representatives for Queen and David Bowie threatened to sue for copyright infringement. Although Vanilla Ice paid the price for allegedly using the bass line hook without permission, it has been argued that this isn’t enough to make up for any credibility that Queen and Bowie may have lost by being unintentionally linked to rap artist, as they’re now credited as songwriters on the track.
On the other hand, such decisions have been described as “a horrible precedent for music and creativity”.
Artists have voiced concern that the Blurred Lines case "threaten[s] to punish songwriters for creating new music inspired by prior works". Many felt that the original verdict was a mistake because it punished copying the ‘feel’ of a song, instead of focusing on direct plagiarising of a sequence of notes, riff or lyrics.
This debate is only set to develop as new (and very public) cases emerge.