In 2015, a California jury decided that the mega-hit “Blurred Lines” by Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke, and Clifford Harris (a/k/a “T.I.”) infringed the copyright in Marvin Gaye’s song, “Got To Give It Up.” The jury awarded Gaye’s heirs $7.4 million. Last week, a panel of the federal court of appeals in San Francisco affirmed the judgment in 2-1 split decision. Williams v. Gaye, No. 15-56880 (9th Cir. March 21, 2018).
The appeals court decision confirmed what this blog argued just after the 2015 jury verdict: that the most significant part of the “Blurred Lines” case is that a jury – not a judge – made the call.
That is somewhat unusual in a copyright case, especially a case involving music. In copyright law, the question whether one work infringes another often turns on whether the allegedly infringing work is “substantially similar” to the previous work. Courts often view the “substantial similarity” question as so clear or one-sided that there is no need for a jury to decide the issue (for our lawyer-readers: i.e., summary judgment). The main question in Williams v. Gaye was whether “Blurred Lines” was “substantially similar” to “Got To Give It Up.” Unusually, the trial judge held a jury trial where the jury was presented with audio and expert testimony concerning the purported similarities/dissimilarities between the two works. The jury ruled for the Gayes.
Courts hesitate to overturn jury verdicts, and this case proved no exception: the appeals court deferred to the jury’s findings without stating its own opinion whether “Blurred Lines” actually infringed Gaye’s composition, while providing little new legal guidance on the question of infringement of musical works.
This decision may not be the end of the case. A strident dissenting opinion believed the case never should have gone to a jury and that the Gayes’ claim should have been rejected as a legal matter, and it is possible the entire court of appeals or the Supreme Court could review the case. Failing further review, however, the “Blurred Lines” case heralds more jury decision-making in these “blurry” disputes.