In a copyright infringement verdict that has shocked the music industry and raised grave concerns among songwriters, a U.S. District Court jury in Los Angeles awarded Marvin Gaye’s estate just under $7.4 million against recording artists Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, the songwriters of the 2013 mega-hit, “Blurred Lines.” After hearing testimony from collaborators Thicke and Williams, as well as from musicologists who dissected and compared the songs, the jury found that “Blurred Lines” infringed the copyright of Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up.” According to news reports, the verdict corresponded to about one dollar for every copy of the song sold, with the song yielding about $16 million in profits. Gaye’s estate was awarded $4 million in damages, as well as profits of about $1.6 million from Williams and about $1.76 million from Thicke. Statutory damages of $9,375 were also awarded. The jury did not assess any fault or damages against the record company that released “Blurred Lines” or rapper T.I., who also performed in the song.
Many in the music industry, and particularly songwriters and producers following the case, were completely stunned by the verdict. To them, while “Blurred Lines” seems to have a similar beat, bass line, and vibe to portions of Gaye’s song, its melody, words, and chord progressions are decidedly distinct. At around the time of the release of “Blurred Lines” in March 2013, Thicke and Williams made no secret that their song was inspired by “Got to Give It Up.” Thicke allegedly went so far as saying that Gaye’s hit was one of his favorite songs, and Williams apparently noted that he wanted to create a similar sound or feeling of songs like Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” However, Thicke would later backtrack from some of his sentiments during his testimony at trial, even admitting that he was drunk or high when talking about the influences for the song, and implying that his comments were less than truthful and meant as a way to promote the song’s release.
While the jury’s verdict was certainly a shock, at the time of the release of “Blurred Lines,” both Thicke and Williams seemed to have had an inkling that a copyright infringement claim from Marvin Gaye’s estate based on “Got to Give It Up” could be a possibility. Therefore, in an effort to head off any such claim, Thicke and Williams actually filed suit against Marvin Gaye’s estate for a declaratory judgment that “Blurred Lines” was not infringing of Gaye’s song. This turned out to backfire against Thicke and Williams when Gaye’s estate countersued, resulting in the recent jury verdict. Interestingly, the attorney for Gaye’s estate has reported that the jury was not even able to actually hear a recording of Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” during trial, but instead apparently based their decision on the sheet music versions of the respective songs. Arguably, as one may conclude based on a mash-up comparing the two songs, perhaps actually hearing the songs side-by-side in their recorded form may have convinced the jury to go the other way.
In a joint statement, Thicke, Williams, and T.I. stated that the jury’s verdict “sets a horrible precedent for music and creativity going forward.” Many other songwriters and recording artists agree, and worry that the verdict could cause a chilling effect for songs that may pay homage to other iconic recordings or sounds. At the very least, the music industry will be watching for signs of more legal battles against songs that may be similar in vibe to other songs. There is already a report that Marvin Gaye’s estate is now looking at Pharrell Williams’ other mega-hit, “Happy,” for potential infringement of Gaye’s song “Ain’t That Peculiar.”