On Wednesday, March 21, 2018, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the song hit   song, Blurred Lines by artists, Pharell Williams, Robin Thicke and Clifford Harris Jr, infringed on the copyright in Marvin Gaye’s song Got to Give it Up. The panel of the appeals court affirmed that the award of actual damages, infringers’ profits and a running royalty were all proper. This decision will likely have several implications in IP law specifically on music infringement claims.
Background of the Case
This appeals case stemmed from a jury finding that Blurred Lines, by Pharell Williams, Robin Thicke, Clifford Harris Jr (otherwise know as T.I) infringed on the Marvin Gaye estate’s copyright on the 1977 hit song “Got to Give It Up”. The panel of appeals judges held that, “ Got To Give It Up was entitled to broad copyright protection because musical compositions were not confined to a narrow range of expression”.  In addition, the panel accepted the merits of the lower courts ruling that the scope of the defendant’s copyright was limited to the sheet music deposited with the Copyright Office and not extending to the sound recordings.  The Circuit court upheld an award of $7.4 million and 50% of all future royalties from Blurred Lines to the Gaye estate.
One of the major issues presented in this case was the level of deference that should be accorded to the jury in the trial. The majority found that substantial deference must be given to the jurors who were present in he room during trial. Those eight jurors who heard the testimony first hand, saw the witnesses’ faces, and listened to both the music and the expert presentations. The most interesting thing about the case is that the jury, and not the judge, made the final decision.
In her dissenting opinion, Judge Jacqueline Nguyen argued that Blurred Lines and Got to Give Up were not objectively similar as a matter of law because they differed in melody, harmony and rhythm. She further explained that the majority’s decision essentially allows the Gaye estate to copyright a musical style. She warns that such a precedent is dangerous for future musicians and composers everywhere.
According to IP watchdog, “Upholding the jury’s verdict, and the ultimate damage award, could very well mean we see a new wave of additional music infringement lawsuits and claims.” Many individuals touted that the case will bring widespread damage to the music industry. While others believe this decision was called correctly, claiming that music industry revenues have not been affected in any way by the Ninth Circuit decision.
Ngwika Crystal Fomba is a J.D. candidate, 2019, at NYU School of Law.