Published On: March 17, 2015Categories: Copyright, Intellectual Property, Litigation, Media

What should we make of the “Blurred Lines” $7.4 Million Verdict for Copyright Violation?

I wish I could remember who humorously pointed out that “In American music, if you ain’t steelin, you ain’t tryin!” Funny. But maybe not so much anymore. It could cost you the bulk of your profits.

Marvin Gaye’s estate filed a lawsuit claiming that the song “Blurred Lines” – a 2013 hit that made Robin Thicke a household name – violated the Copyright on Marvin Gaye’s 1977 catchy hit “Got to Give it Up.”After a two week trial in Los Angeles federal court, an L.A. jury ordered Thicke and co-writer Pharrell Williams to pay the estate of Marvin Gaye $7.4 million for copyright violation.

Was there A Copyright Violation?

Ever heard the song “Got to Give it Up”? Me neither till now. According to the counter on YouTube, it has gotten millions of hits on YouTube in the past few weeks since the verdict. It’s a great song—a lot better than Blurred Lines if you ask me. Give it a listen:

…and then listen to Blurred Lines, see what you think—clear difference between them or does it smack of excessive sampling?

Someone actually did a side by side:

Personally, I don’t see much difference other than the banal lyrics in Blurred Lines and the Fat Albert-esque “Hey hey hey” running over the vocals.

The Law: Sampling of Any Amount May be a Copyright Violation

There has been much ado about sampling in the law in the last decade or so. Some jurisdictions now read the copyright law to say that if you include any sample of another song, you owe royalties to the copyright holder.  Granted, how much you’d owe is a different question. Read another interesting article about famous people’s reactions to the lawsuit HERE.

Some people have pointed out that the Gaye family and estate would never had sued had Thicke and Pharrell not made so much money. And that is probably true. But I can’t say that it is because the Gaye family is unprincipled. Virtually nobody sues when there is nothing to collect.

In the end, it is about money. Not so much “artistic integrity.” Thicke actually gave tribute to Gaye during some interviews about the inspiration for the song. So isn’t that enough for the integrity and attribution piece? Thicke and Pharrell made plenty of money on the song—a lot more than Marvin Gaye apparently did when he recorded and performed the original. Much of that they will have to disgorge because, as the jury apparently found, much of the song was Gaye’s original work.

Where This May Lead

A few things we need to follow: Publicly available information says that Thicke and Pharrell received some $10,000,000 collectively from the song. If so, $7.4 million in damages actually seems really high—even for copyright, and even considering trebling the damages for willful copyright violation, etc. I suppose if those numbers are accurate, a jury could have found that Gaye did 74% of the work…and therefore, is entitled to 74% of the proceeds for the ‘creative’ aspect. That could have been the logic. Who knows. It will be interesting to see what happens on appeal when the verdict is put under scrutiny. Something tells me a settlement will happen before we get the full story.

Read more about Copyright HERE.