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'Blurred Lines' copyright ruling is a 'devastating blow' and sets dangerous precedent for musicians, judge warns

Judge Jacqueline Nguyen said 'Blurred Lines' and Marvin Gaye's song 'Got To Give It Up' 'differed in melody, harmony and rhythm'

Roisin O'Connor
Music Correspondent
Thursday 22 March 2018 09:34 GMT
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A controversial 2015 verdict that concluded 'Blurred Lines' infringed on the copyright to 'Got To Give It Up' has been upheld

The US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit has upheld a controversial 2015 verdict that concluded “Blurred Lines” – the 2013 hit by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams – infringed on the copyright to Marvin Gaye‘s 1977 song “Got To Give It Up”.

The Ninth Circuit Panel, comprised of three judges, voted 2-1 to retain the most recent verdict against the two artists, which says they are liable for $5.3m in damages, which are to be paid to the Gaye estate.

It disagreed with comments by one of the judges in the case, Jacqueline Nguyen, who said in a fierce criticism that the two tracks “differed in melody, harmony and rhythm” and added the ruling “strikes a devastating blow to future musicians and composers everywhere”.

“‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Got to Give It Up’ are not objectively similar,” she wrote. “They differ in melody, harmony and rhythm. Yet by refusing to compare the two works, the majority establishes a dangerous precedent that strikes a devastating blow to future musicians and composers everywhere.

“The Gayes, no doubt, are pleased by this outcome,” she continued. “They shouldn’t be. They own copyrights in many musical works, each of which (including ‘Got To Give It Up’) now potentially infringes the copyright of any famous song that preceded it.”

Judge Nguyen also criticised the judges for what she called “uncritical deference to music experts” about whether there were similarities in the music.

“While experts are invaluable in identifying and explaining elements that appear in both works, judges must still decide whether, as a matter of law, these elements collectively support a finding of substantial similarity,” she said. “Here, they don’t, and the verdict should be vacated.”

The musical composition to “Blurred Lines” is co-owned by Thicke, Williams, and Clifford “TI” Harris. Harris, along with Interscope Records, were cleared by the appeals court of any infringement.

Damages paid to the Gaye estate are broken down as $3,188,528 in actual damages, plus profits of $1,768,192 against Thicke and $357,631 against Williams. The Gayes will also receive a running royalty of 50 per cent of future songwriter and publishing revenues from “Blurred Lines”.

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The case has caused consternation as artists, labels and songwriters expressed concern over the impact the ruling would have on the music industry.

More than 200 artists signed an appeal letter in 2016, voicing alarm at the precedent that was being set. Signatories included the likes of John Oates of chart-topping duo Hall & Oates, Rich Robinson of The Black Crowes, Curt Smith from Tears For Fears, and members of hard rock groups Poison and Great White.

“By eliminating any meaningful standard for drawing the line between permissible inspiration and unlawful copying, the judgement is certain to stifle creativity and impede the creative process,” the artists said in a court filing.

Gaye family attorney Richard S Busch praised the ruling and said: “Despite the protests of the Williams’ camp that the decision somehow stifles creativity, the opposite is true.”

He said the verdict and ruling on 21 March “encourages today’s writers to create original work that does not take advantage of the success of others while pawning it off as their own”.

You can read the full ruling here.

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