No “Blurred Lines” when it comes to Infringement!

If you’re a lover of music, it is more than likely that you have heard Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines,” (recorded in 2012 and released in 2013), but it may be likely that you have not heard that Thicke, and his co-writers (Clifford Harris Jr. aka “TI”, and Pharrell Williams), have been caught up in major litigation regarding the song.  In short, singer/songwriter Marvin Gaye’s family claimed that Thicke’s hit song used distinct musical elements from Gaye’s 1977 hit, “Got to Give it Up” without getting permission from Gaye’s estate (Gaye passed away in 1984).  Such copyright infringement claims are quite common in the world of music and entertainment, but most cases (especially those with high profile clients) tend to settle out of court.  This case, however, reached a full trial with a jury!  So, I’m sure you can imagine just how excited us IP attorneys were, and how closely we have followed this case!

“There is an old saying in the music business… that if you get a hit, you will get a writ.” – Kenneth J. Abdo, a music lawyer.

Although the case has reached a conclusion now, it goes back to August 2013, when Thicke and his co-writers filed a preemptive strike against Gaye’s family, seeking judgment in their favor and claiming there was usage of Gaye’s track in Thicke’s hit.  As expected, Nona and Frankie Gaye (Gaye’s children) counter-sued.  The two sides were unable to reach a settlement and the case found its way into the Los Angeles court system.

In the landmark decision that came out today (March 10th, 2015), an 8 person (5 women / 3 men) federal jury in Los Angeles found in favor of Gaye’s family and agreed that Thicke’s 2013 hit song “Blurred Lines” did indeed infringe on Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up.” The majority of case consisted of analysis and comparisons of both the tracks – with witnesses on both sides attempting to prove either the similarity or dissimilarity of the tracks.  Gaye’s lawyer chose to rely on musicologists as his expert witnesses, who helped elucidate the similarities in the two compositions by providing layered analysis of the music.

Both Thicke and Williams appeared in court to defend the case, and Gaye’s lawyer was reported as saying he had to work hard to counter the power of their celebrity.  What was really a strange move in my opinion, and perhaps what may have been a pivotal moment in the case, is when Williams actually admitted to the similarities of the tracks after hearing the bass lines from both juxtaposed upon one another.  He is quoted as saying, “It sounds like you’re playing the same thing.”

Ultimately, the jury awarded $7.4 million in judgment to Gaye’s children.  This amount is unsurprising when one recognizes that the Grammy-award nominated, “Blurred Lines,” made nearly $16.5 million in sales.  The track stayed on Billboard’s single chart for 10 consecutive weeks!  Although the jury found against the co-writers, they did not hold the record company liable.

Speaking after the verdict, Marvin Gaye’s daughter, Nona Gaye, said in a statement, “Right now, I feel free. Free from Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke’s chains and what they tried to keep on us and the lies that were told.”

If you (and especially if you’re a major artist) are thinking of using samples from other tracks, or claiming that a track “inspired” your composition, I would caution that you should always do it the legal way.  Contact the main artist and ask for permission.  Sure, it may cost you money to get that coveted sample you want to use, but isn’t it better than the larger payout you would have to make if an artist finds that you are infringing their work?  Additionally, if you can’t afford to pay out, perhaps consider searching for music whose owners have given permission for others to sample their work.  The Thicke-Gaye case shows that, these days, there are no “blurred lines” between inspiration and infringement.  Proceed with caution, friends.

If you’re still curious and want to read more, check out further details in this rather comprehensive article on CNN: