March 12, 2015
By: Francis J. Ciaramella
The song Blurred Lines by musical artists Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams was the longest running number one single of 2013 in the United States. Thicke and Williams claimed that their song was a homage to the 1977 song Got to Give It Up by Marvin Gaye. The estate of Marvin Gaye was inclined to believe that Blurred Lines was more than a mere tribute.
The litigation between the estate of Marvin Gaye, Robin Thicke, and Pharrell Williams began in August of 2013 when the Plaintiffs (Thicke and Williams) filed suit against the Gaye estate seeking a declaratory judgment that Blurred Lines does not infringe on the copyright to Got to Give It Up. The Gaye estate counterclaimed, amongst numerous other copyright claims, that the Plaintiffs infringed on the copyright to Got to Give It Up.
During trial, expert musicologist Judith Finell for the Defendant testified that “’a preliminary review comparing Give It Up and Blurred has revealed a constellation of eight substantially similar features…and that these similarities surpass the realm of generic coincidence, reaching to the very essence of each work.’” Williams v. Bridgeport Music, Inc., 2014 WL 7877773 (C.D. Cal. 2014). Plaintiffs’ expert musicologist Sandy Wilbur testified that there was no similarity. Because of the disagreement between experts who examined the same musical pieces, the Court held that there was indeed a genuine issue of material fact, and that Plaintiffs’ Motion for Summary Judgment was improper. This allowed the case to proceed to full jury trial.
At trial, the jury had to determine whether Plaintiffs had indeed committed copyright infringement. To establish copyright infringement, two matters must be established: “(1) ownership of a valid copyright, and (2) copying of constituent elements of the work that are original.” Id.; Feist Publications, Inc. v. Rural Tel. Serv. Co., 499 U.S. 340, 361 (1991). Here, the constituent elements of the work (i.e., Got to Give It Up) were analyzed by the jury and compared against Blurred Lines, and included the following factors: signature phrases of both songs, hooks (i.e., memorable melodies), hooks with backup vocals, backup vocals, bass melodies, keyboard parts, percussion choices, harmonic similarity, melodic similarity, and overall structure. Williams v. Bridgeport Music, Inc., 2014 WL 7877773 (C.D. Cal. 2014).
Ultimately, the jury determined that both Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were liable for copyright infringement, having met the requisite elements. On March 10, 2015, the jury awarded the Gaye estate $7.4 million in damages for copyright infringement.
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