Blurred Lines Copyright Lawsuit Gets Funky As Judge Delves Into The Blurred Lines Of What's Really Copyrighted

from the talking-about-these...-blurred-lines dept

A year and a half ago, we wrote about the fact that the estate of Marvin Gaye had been threatening Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams over their hit song “Blurred Lines” — leading Williams and Thicke to file for a declaratory judgment that the song didn’t infringe. As we noted at the time, even though Blurred Lines clearly has a similar “feel” to Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up,” having a similar “feel” is not infringement. There’s the whole “idea/expression” dichotomy. The copyright is on the specific expression and not the general idea of the song. As the original filing noted, Gaye’s heirs appeared to be “claiming ownership of an entire genre, as opposed to a specific work.”

That case has been going on for a while now with a lot of back and forth — including a wacky deposition last year in which Thicke admits to being too high to really have had much to do with the writing of the song. However, last week, the case shifted into high gear with an interesting set of rulings that highlight the somewhat… er… “blurred lines” between what is, and what is not, covered by the copyright in question.

The key issue: the heirs of Marvin Gaye own the copyright on the composition, but not on the sound recording. This came out back in October, when Williams and Thicke failed to win on summary judgment. However, in that ruling, the judge, John Kronstadt, realized that the family really only held the copyright on the composition that was a part of the sheet music, and not the recording itself (which includes a number of other elements) because, under the 1909 Copyright Act (which was in force when they registered the work), they did not take the proper steps to protect the full recording.

Because of this, things really started to get funky for them. First, the judge told the Gaye Estate that it could not play the recording of “Got to Give it Up,” because the recording has elements that are not protected by the copyright on the composition — and thus it would be unfair for the jury to hear the full sound recording, as they would be unable to separate out the copyright-covered composition elements with the non-copyright covered additions to the sound recording. Given that this is already about how much the songs “feel” similar, you can see why the Gaye Estate was rather apoplectic about this. Part of the excluded part, by the way, is the sound of Gaye’s voice — which the judge ruled was not covered by the copyright. Instead, Pharrell and Williams’ lawyers suggested that the Gaye Estate could, instead, just have a musician come into court and play the song from the sheet music that was registered.

A couple of days later, the judge put out another ruling [pdf] after further considering the matter and changed that original ruling somewhat. In what appears to be an attempt to split the baby, he argued that while it would be wrong to let the Gaye family play the full recording… they could, instead, create a new version of the old sound recording that strips out the unprotected bits:

Therefore, although the Gaye sound recordings may embody the copyrighted compositions at issue, they also contain additional material. Consequently, there is a measurable risk that their wholesale admission into evidence would unfairly prejudice Plaintiffs…. In performing their intrinsic analysis of the songs, jurors would be required to filter out such elements as percussion, party sounds and backup vocals that could well influence their responses to the songs as ?ordinary reasonable person[s],? and it could be difficult for them to mentally separate what is and is not protectable in this capacity…. Further, there would be little probative value in asking them to perform this challenging task. Thus, even if it were determined that Plaintiffs copied any unprotected elements embodied in the recordings, this would not tend to make it more or less probable that they copied protected elements of the compositions at issue.

There is merit, however, to Defendants? contention that it could be difficult for them to present their evidence of intrinsic similarity if the sound recordings are inadmissible in their entirety…. As the ordinary person presumably cannot sight-read music and determine its sound, the sheet music alone is inadequate for purposes of this test….

Plaintiffs have proposed that the musicologists can ?play[] on a keyboard at trial the elements of the sheet music deposit copies for the Gaye compositions that are claimed to be similar to Plaintiffs? two songs.? … Although this method may be helpful for focusing the jury?s attention on particular elements, if this were the only evidence presented as to the intrinsic qualities of the Gaye compositions, the jury may not have the opportunity to consider elements of the compositions that are properly within the scope of the subject matter protected by Defendants? copyrights.

The copyright deposits are not comprised of notes alone. They contain lyrics to be sung to melodies, as well as certain other elements. The ?total concept and feel? of a piano tune without words may differ from that of a vocal melody. For these reasons, relevant portions of the Gaye sound recordings that substantially reflect the subject matter of the copyright deposit sheets could have probative value with regard to the intrinsic characteristics of the works. To avoid prejudice to Plaintiffs, these recordings would need to be edited to remove all unprotected elements such as percussion and backup vocals. In addition, the length of such edited recordings would be considered in evaluating whether they were tailored to the allegedly protected content asserted by Defendants. Any potential prejudice to Plaintiffs caused by the airing of Gaye?s voice, which is not protected, is something that could perhaps be addressed by a limiting instruction.

Pursuant to this Order, Defendants may seek the admission of a sound recording. However, it will be necessary for Defendants to edit the versions of the recordings that were previously proffered. A new version must conform to the terms of this Order. It must be one that satisfies the Court that it strikes an appropriate balance between presenting a recording that contains what is reflected on the deposit copy, without including potentially prejudicial sounds that are not protected.

The judge also noted that, due to earlier moves in the case by the Gaye Estate (including submitting a mashup that has Gaye’s vocals over Blurred Lines, that the legal team of the Estate “possess the technical capabilities to isolate protected from unprotected elements of the recordings of their compositions” so they need to get to work on that.

This seems like exactly the right legal ruling. The judge properly noted that only part of the song is actually covered by copyright, and it would be hellishly unfair to use the elements of the song that are not covered by copyright (including Gaye’s voice) to prejudice the jury. He’s really trying to make sure that the trial turns on the parts that are actually covered by copyright. But, of course, the Gaye Estate hates that, because it does seem like, if anything was copied, it may actually have been the unprotected parts of Gaye’s song — which, in being unprotected are totally free to be copied.

In response, the family is looking to appeal the ruling, as they’re not at all happy with this turn of events, arguing that it’s crazy and unprecedented. To read their filing [pdf] on the matter, you might think that the ruling to only play the protected parts would bring down all of Western civilization.

The Court?s ruling would have a devastating impact on the rights of owners of pre-1978 musical compositions by allowing wholesale copying of compositional elements not found in pre-registration published versions of the works or within the deposit copies themselves. For example, under this Court?s ruling, a clever infringer would be able to compare sheet music or deposit copy lead sheets of the works of the Beatles, The Rolling Stones, Elvis Presley, and, of course, Marvin Gaye, with the composition as embodied in the recordings of those icons, and take with impunity all compositional elements not found within the sheet music or deposit copies. It would create a situation where the compositions in the recordings are derivative works incapable of copyright protection because, as pre-1978 works, the recordings could not be submitted as the musical compositions. That is not and cannot be the law.

Actually, that could be and is the law. You only get to exclude uses on the things actually covered by copyright.

And, in response to the Gaye Estate, the lawyers for Williams and Thicke have hit back as well pointing out that the judge got it right, and the Gaye Estate is trying to effectively claim copyright over uncopyrighted content. Their opposition [pdf] is a good read as well:

Marvin Gaye never owned a copyright in ?Got to Give It Up.? His publisher, Jobete, owned the copyright. The copyright notice at the bottom of each deposit copy states: ?© [year] Jobete Music Company, Inc.? The copyright only descended to his heirs after his death because the renewal rights vested in his heirs as a matter of law when Marvin Gaye died. It was never Marvin Gaye?s song.

Whatever Marvin Gaye allegedly did in the recording studio to create other musical elements, and for which there is no evidence, anyway, has no bearing on the scope of any copyright under the 1909 Act, and certainly not on Jobete?s copyright.

The 1909 Act is what it is. There is nothing unfair or unjust about it. There is no reason for the Court to change its rulings because Defendants do not like them, think they are unfair, or make hyperbolic claims about the supposed impact on the music industry. The simple fact is that, prior to 1978 (and after), compositions for popular music were considered to be the melody, harmony, and lyrics?i.e., the song. No songwriter considered a hi-hat part, vocal ?woo,? falsetto vocal style, omission of a guitar, keyboard part, or other element of a sound recording of the song to be the song itself. And if they did, they included that element in the written composition they published with notice?just as Jobete did hear with a ?bass intro? in ?Got to Give It Up.? Defendants now are facing a jury trial and wish that they owned something other than the published composition that is nothing like ?Blurred Lines.? Their desire to distract and mislead the jury is not basis for reconsideration.

As for the massive wave of infringement the Gaye Estate lawyers predict? Williams and Thicke’s lawyers point out — as we did above — that this doesn’t make any sense at all. The law only protects the stuff covered by copyright:

Defendants? dire warnings about the demise of the United States copyright law as a result of this Court?s pretrial rulings are greatly exaggerated. Defendants argue that if pre-1978 copyrights are limited to the published compositions that were copyrighted, then anyone can copy composition al material in any pre-1978 sound recordings that was not copyrighted. Defendants are absolutely correct. That is how copyright works.

Later, they remind the court and the Gaye Estate that, indeed, since under the 1909 Act — until 1972 — sound recordings weren’t subject to copyright at all, the Gaye Estate seems to be trying to rewrite history.

Indeed, sound recordings themselves were not subject to copyright under the 1909 Act prior to 1972. Elvis Presley?s famous sound recordings from the 1950s and 1960s are not subject to statutory copyright. There is nothing unfair or wrong about that. Congress provided the protection it provided.

As the lawyers point out, this didn’t mean that you couldn’t protect songs under copyright, it’s just that you had to do it right:

Defendants argue that the Court?s ruling ?would create a situation where the compositions in the recordings are derivative works incapable of copyright protection because, as pre-1978 recordings, the recordings could not be submitted as the musical compositions.? … This assertion is flat out wrong. Compositions in the sound recordings could always be fully protected?all that was required was to publish sheet music with notice affixed that embodied all the compositional elements in which copyright was claimed. Any vocal or instrumental part can be notated. Lead sheets were common because songwriters generally did not consider the performance elements (drums, bass, etc.) to be the composition: the ?song? was the melody, harmony, and lyrics. Defendants? ?notion that common use of lead sheets somehow precluded a composer in the 1970s from submitting a score indicating all instrumental or vocal elements in which the composter claimed a copyright is without foundation.?

In short, the Gaye Estate wants to go back in time and pretend that under the 1909 Act they have a copyright on the sound recording, even though the law is clear that they don’t. And they’re flipping out, because it’s pretty clear that the key to their case is in the unprotected parts of the recording. But if that’s what Williams and Thicke copied, that’s perfectly fine, because that part is in the public domain where everyone is allowed to copy it.

There is an unfortunate habit of many legacy copyright supporters to pretend that copyright gives them a lot more than it really does. And, all too often, judges fall for it. But not everything gets covered by copyright, and it’s good to see a case where the judge is making it clear which parts are protectable and which are not.

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Comments on “Blurred Lines Copyright Lawsuit Gets Funky As Judge Delves Into The Blurred Lines Of What's Really Copyrighted”

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jameshogg says:

Re: Re:

Upton Sinclair once said “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!”

I should add to that and say that a lawyer’s salary depends entirely on everybody else not being able to understand a certain something. So of course there is an incentive to make law as complex as possible, given the right levels of corruption.

And there is a reason why they can and will seek to over-complicate a field like copyright before other fields such as libel law – because the very nature of copyright is its needless complexion based on its fundamental logical fallacies. If fair use cannot be commercial (you know, the ONLY real “use” you have), in what sense is it really fair? And isn’t the very phrase “fair use” not just a euphemism for “permitted stealing”, according to copyright believers? It should be. A penny stolen from a safe is still theft. “Transformative” should be a euphemism for “derivative”. “Substantial amount” is basically saying “if the wallet has $500, you are free to steal $50”, as well as many other contradictions that the copyright believers don’t want to face up to, for risk of them being well and truly exposed for the censors they are.

I do not know of any legal field that is as complex as copyright law. The vortex that is American tax code, perhaps? Which results in only those who can pay for professional lawyers being able to find the hidden loopholes? Other than that I do not know.

But what I do know is it is a gross insult to those of us who are loyal to the principle of Occam’s Razor. One of the very first posts the legal-body head Terry Hart displayed on his pro-copyright site “” was a post praising complexity seemingly for its own sake, and took a dismissive attitude towards those of us who seek to eliminate the multiplication of unnecessary constants.

This is the mentality of lawyers. They want complexity in law as their very own careers benefit enormously from it. Everything about it must be resisted. And especially in America: land of the lawyer, home of the sued.

And one of the best places to start is where a whole legal framework is rooted on a fallacy: that of copyright.

jameshogg says:

“Copyright doesn’t protect the notes, it protects the symphonies!”

A word is a symphony of letters.
A sentence is a symphony of words.

A line is a symphony of dots.
A square is a symphony of lines.
A cube is a symphony of squares.

A blended colour is a symphony of primary colours.

Only when you point these things out do you then hear the cries of “well we’re still going to just set the limits here, here and here anyway because we JUST ARE” when their logic of “symphonies, not notes” falls apart, sometimes it’s “but those things you mentioned are too foundational to meet the limits” one time and “three black circles DOES count for Disney!!” another: they fall back onto “we decide” as the basis of their argument, which is way too slippery a standard to pass any elementary freedom of expression test.

When you cut through all the jargon and crap, copyright believers make the same claim as all censors: they consider themselves capable of drawing lines without falling into corruption.

Ninja (profile) says:

This is interesting. Sounds more like an opt-in copyright system which is the proper course of action. And the lawyers did an amazing job pointing out that the copyright owners of the composition failed to take the steps to copyright the recording itself.

Now I wouldn’t claim victory because they can appeal. And Aereo showed us that doing everything according to the law can still put you in trouble.

LAB (profile) says:

Great to see the Judge really understanding the statute and the protections given to the composition vs the recording. That was the point entire time. The songs “feel” similar. However, copyrighting feel is akin to copyrighting “disco”or “funk” or songs with bongos. What is most bothersome is that the M. Gaye tune is in a minor key and “Blurred lines” is in a major key. That is why the estate is battling like this because, music theory wise, the songs are not the same.

Devonavar says:

So much bullshit

Oh dear god.

The lawyers are full of shit.
The judges are full of shit.
The defendants are full of shit.
Marvin Gaye’s estate is full of shit.
The idea / expression dichotomy is full of shit.
And especially, the law is full of shit.

The judges may be correct in identifying how this shit works, but that doesn’t change the fact that this whole situation is a pile of shit.

Everything about this situation is wrong. Marvin Gaye shouldn’t suing anyone. Composition shouldn’t be separate from the “song”. The judge (and the law) shouldn’t be expecting that the composition can somehow be separated from the recording. They shouldn’t be expected to produce a “recording” that highlights only the elements of composition (and the fact that they can do this tells me they have the master tapes). The copyright on the recording shouldn’t belong to the record company.


DogBreath says:

Suggestion for musician

Instead, Pharrell and Williams’ lawyers suggested that the Gaye Estate could, instead, just have a musician come into court and play the song from the sheet music that was registered.

If I were Williams and Thicke, I would hire Keyboard Cat, to be provided at no cost to the Gaye family, to play the protected sections.

Since the original Keyboard Cat is long deceased, they could still hire his successor. He certainly appears to have the chops.

Tim Griffiths (profile) says:

More proof that the recording industry has changed the nature of songs.

The simple issue here is that people with a modern understanding of what a song is are retroactively applying it to a time in which that understanding was diffrent.

It used to be that the song was something viewed as independent of how it was performed because with out a way to save and replay a performance those performances were ephemeral. You’d never truly hear the same thing in the same way twice so it was the bones of that performance, the main composition that was the solid fixed point to which the idea of a song could be hooked. This is exactly why copyright on the published sheet music made sense and why it wouldn’t include all the possible embellishments of a recorded performance.

Through out the early days and even well into the golden age this way of thinking remained more or less intact in the minds of people writing the songs even as the cultural conception regarding them was changing. With perfect, on demand, repeatable performances becoming the norm it made the way that most people first contacted and understood songs was through that first recorded performance of them. That given performance of the song started to become the song rather than simply one performance of a given composition. Which is a truly radical shift when you think about it and which is why copyright law ended up following suit and allowing copyright on the sound recordings.

These days most people think of the song as the total composition of the recorded “performance” (I’m using the term very loosely at this point) and there is where you find the issues Gaye’s estate is having with this case. They started it because they simply presumed that this modern convention applied and are now screaming about how it’s ‘unfair’ based on the pretext that makes no sense to the way copyright was thought to apply to the song at the time it was registered.

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