Jury Says Robin Thicke And Pharrell Infringed… Even If They Didn't Mean To: Told To Pay $7.3 Million

from the time-for-the-appeal dept

This isn’t a huge surprise, even as it’s ridiculously problematic, but the jury in the “Blurred Lines” copyright case has ruled that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams infringed on Marvin Gaye’s song, and thus now owe $7.54 million. I had guessed that this is how the jury would rule solely because it was possible to play Blurred Lines lyrics over the Gaye composition and have it sound like it would fit — and it seemed unlikely that the jury would understand enough about the specifics of copyright to not think that magically made it infringing. Of course, the fact is there are tons of songs that you could play over tons of other songs. That’s why there are even multiple different comedy routines making this point.

The jury seems to understand that Thicke and Williams didn’t do this on purpose — even though there was a claim made that they said they wanted a song with “the feel” of a Marvin Gaye song. In fact, they said it wasn’t willful infringement. That means that, according to this jury, merely being inspired by a genre and making a song with the same sort of “feel” is infringing. That’s not how copyright law is supposed to work at all. One hopes that Thicke and Williams appeal and the appeals court slaps down this ridiculousness. Either way, this accidental infringement is worth a pretty penny, according to the jury:

Ultimately, a jury comprised of five women and three men heard dueling opinions regarding “Blurred Lines” and decided to order Thicke and Williams to pay $4 million in copyright damages plus profits attributable to infringement, which for Thicke was determined to be $1.8 million and $1.6 million.

That’s less than the $25 million that the Gaye Estate was seeking, but still. That’s crazy. It’s likely that Thicke and Williams will appeal, and one hopes that they’ll go through with it, rather than settle just to end things. This is a horrific copyright ruling that suggests that songs that merely have a similar feel may be infringing. It’s a really dangerous precedent that completely undermines basic copyright law. In the meantime, the Gaye estate is asking for a permanent injunction on the sale of the song, which is just a negotiating tactic to pressure Thicke/Williams into settling…

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Comments on “Jury Says Robin Thicke And Pharrell Infringed… Even If They Didn't Mean To: Told To Pay $7.3 Million”

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58 Comments
GMacGuffin (profile) says:

Ask Todd ...

Ludicrous. Every time I see something on this case I am reminded of Todd Rundgren’s album “Deface the Music” in which every single song directly cops the feel of a particular Beatles song. Each of Rundgren’s songs is wholly original, while it’s glaringly obvious which Beatles song it is modeled after.

With a title like Deface the Music, obviously he wasn’t making a secret of it. The Beatles didn’t sue… perhaps because it was homage? Perhaps because it’s not copyright infringement.

[Heh heh … he said cops a feel]

OldGeezer (profile) says:

Re: Re:

It’s not. If I remember right the decision was also that it wasn’t intentional. I am a musician and have tried my hand at writing but it seems that every time I think I have come up with something original I realize that it just sounds too much like some well known song. Every artist builds on previous influences.

Larry Zerner (profile) says:

While it would be nice to see what happens on an appeal, it probably won’t happen. The Gaye family is now entitled to an injunction against further distribution of the song. Unless the court stays the injunction pending appeal (which it probably won’t because it will effect the damages), Pharrell and Thick will have to come to a deal with the Gaye family to allow further distribution. Otherwise, no money will be received from the song until the appeal is concluded (a minimum of 2 years).

orbitalinsertion (profile) says:

Re: Hard case makes bad law?

And just plain sucking, for those who seem to insist these thing are just fine and not a problem human cultures at all. Which very well could be most of them.

But it’s probably more of the “moral rights” idiocy, where people think they actually made money off sounding like something someone else did. Once someone pointed it out and whined loudly. Because Ghost Busters sounded like Huey Lewis or some shit. Just like great whacking chunks of any music will sound like something else if one looks long enough.

Binko Barnes (profile) says:

You really got to love it when a lawsuit like this is launched by something called “the Gaye Estate”, basically a bunch of moocher descendents of the actual artist who never have and never will produce a creative work of their own.

I’m pretty sure this isn’t what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the copyright clause of the Constitution that states “To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries.”

Seegras (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

It was made

“to impose unreasonable restraints on the reprinting of the words of the dead, you have, to a great extent, annulled those restraints which now prevent men from pillaging and defrauding the living.”

Of course, this was said in 1841 when some idiots wanted to make it last longer than lifetime. They didn’t listen.

http://homepages.law.asu.edu/~dkarjala/OpposingCopyrightExtension/commentary/MacaulaySpeeches.html

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Many of those who participated in the proceedings leading up to the preparation and ratification in 1789 of the U.S. Constitution also participated in the preparation and enactment of the Copyright Act of 1790.

The very first section of the act makes it only too clear that the law embraced the right of an author to pass his/her right to others by assignment, bequest or devise. In other words, alienability has always been an important feature ofUS copyright law.

OldGeezer (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

Few artists from my youth will ever be public domain. I may live long enough to see a few that met an untimely young death. If I make it to 75 Buddy Holly will be public domain. I’ll have to make it into my 90’s for Jimi and Janis. Since many artists from that time of my life are still living it looks like My great grandchildren will be in their 50’s when copyright expires and I’ll be long dead.

Blackfiredragon13 (profile) says:

Re: Re:

To finish saying what I was trying to in the space of two minutes of typing on a phone:
Culture is something that’s constantly “evolving” of sorts. The argument that because something sounds similar or “is influenced by” it makes it infringing makes their already flimsy argument ring hollow. Hell it would be more logical (watch as I get sued for sounding similar to Spock) to not have that point in the argument over whether this is “infringing”.
And “influenced by Marvin Gaye”? Hell where else should they look for “influence” because going by your logic anywhere they do take “influence” from leads to this type of shit where they’d be in the exact same position of getting sued over infringement using the exact same flawed logic you are using! Influence comes from everything, and given how %99.99999.. of what’s around to “influence” you is copyrighted, trademarked and patened up the ass of course it’s going to sound similar. That’s pretty much why we have these things organized into genres, because they all have similar qualities. And don’t you DARE try to claim that means you own the entire genre and all derivatives of that genre because the world will be too busy laughing their asses for a judge to even appear in court to strike it down.
By this court’s logic, James brown’s estate could sue MJ’s estate on the basis that the late and great Michael Jackson’s style was inspired by the former of the two. Even when music was its infancy and musical instruments were as basic as clapping one’s hands rhythmically had to be inspired by something!
There, got it out of my system. Mostly. Might add to this rant later.

Drawoc Suomynona (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Yeah, I agree. The original is a pretty unique tune, and the second sounded like a copy to my ear from the moment I heard it.

I get the idea that everything is copied and nothing is original, riffs get borrowed, producers want to capture a “feel”. If Robert Johnson were around he’d have beef with a full half of the British invasion. But this isn’t just a riff, to me the new song sounds pretty much like a copy of the whole old song, complete with ‘woo’s.

It’s surprising it came out of the studio like that without someone catching it. Some remixing might have blurred the lines between the two songs enough to keep it out of court.

Or they could have just done what Sam Smith did with Tom Petty…http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/tom-petty-on-sam-smith-settlement-no-hard-feelings-these-things-happen-20150129

s.oneill says:

Music and patterns

Oh its not just blues. Frank zappa pointed out once that the vast majority of tinpan alley tunes from the late 1800s to early 1900s used either the same chord progressions or closely transformed versions. Rock and roll is filled with it two. I mean theres only so many orders you can play four chords in. Even complicated genres like metal have their tropes, like droning E’s (or D’s) , lots of diablo intervals, and so on.

Music just works that way, because patterns work that way.

AnonymousE (user link) says:

"Didn't mean to?" Is THAT what they said?

Back in the day when I was 4, I wrote a song. With notes. Actual NOTES, I tell you.

So this lawsuit means any song played now-a-days that also uses notes is an UNINTENTIONAL RIPOFF of my original song. So I only want 7 Mil from every single writer, performer, artist, and MPAA and RIAA member for EVERY song they’ve played since then.

I’m just protecting the integrity of the industry, you see. It’s a moral imperative. I wouldn’t feel right if I just let them off the hook by ignoring their mistake. And any money collected is completely by accident and obviously unworthy of mention.

Avoid lawsuits!! Call or send in your checks now! Agents are standing by!

Anonymous Coward says:

“That’s not how copyright law is supposed to work”
Actually, thats exactly how its supposed to work, according to them. Its a law that can be used to achieve anything.
Want some free money? Say you have a copyright on something succesful. Want to silence a critic? Copyright is for you!
Next door kids too loud? Copyright! Get their asses in prison, its easy.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

“As the copyright regime approaches the infinite, artistic output will approach zero.”

Or you know, people might just start writing new music that breaks the mold of “Three chords and a bridge.”

I get the impression that same people who complain about music being unoriginal these days are the same ones arguing that musicians should be able to rip each other off.

It’s like you’re all so close to having a coherent thought.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

Why is that a disconnect?

I’m not bothered by artists copying off each other. I might not like the result, but that doesn’t mean I think artists should be allowed to base their work off existing ones.

Why would my taste and preference in present-day music matter to what artists do with each other?

Sasha Asimova says:

Would this make all Four Chords songs infringing?

So…

Would this make all four chords songs infringing? For reference, see the Axis of Awesome’s Four Chords here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oOlDewpCfZQ

And I believe Wikipedia has a list of bands that could be sued by the original.. whoever what is:
http://www.wikiwand.com/en/I%E2%80%93V%E2%80%93vi%E2%80%93IV_progression

Also, since this is my idea, could I get royalties when this happens?

Jim Wiggin says:

Jury Right or Wrong?

There are a few things to understand about the Blurred Lines decision.

First, the copyrights at issue were for Marvin Gaye’s sheet music, not the recorded song. My understanding is that the jury did not compare the publicly released songs, but renditions from the sheet music.

Second, juries are instructed on the law by the judge before going into the jury room to reach their decisions. The jury instructions are put together through a process which involves the lawyers for both parties and the judge. The starting point in federal court is usually the standard jury instructions which have been published by the federal judiciary for various cases. Those standard instructions are often modified to comply with decisions by the federal court of appeals that governs the particular federal district, in this case the Ninth Circuit. That said, mistakes of law are sometimes made in jury instructions and cases often raise issues that are not entirely embraced by the standard instructions, in which case the attorneys and judge attempt to agree on the proper statement of law. You can read the Blurred Line Jury instructions at: http://www.scribd.com/doc/258437531/Pharrell-Williams-Robin-Thicke-v-Gaye-jury-instructions-Blurred-Lines-trial-pdf#scribd

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