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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  • icon
    GMacGuffin (profile), 10 Mar 2015 @ 4:13pm

    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]

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Mar 2015 @ 4:33pm

    So how is this different than when George Harrison got hit with subliminal infrigement with My Sweet Lord?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      OldGeezer (profile), 10 Mar 2015 @ 5:13pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    sophisticatedjanedoe (profile), 10 Mar 2015 @ 4:39pm

    The entire genre of blues would be killed in its infancy by copyright today.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      GMacGuffin (profile), 10 Mar 2015 @ 4:45pm

      Re:

      Blues has fewer options than In-n-Out Burger. That'll be 3 chords any key... would you like 8 or 12 bars with that?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Mar 2015 @ 4:49pm

      Re:

      Based on that jury, all new works music, video, graphic or written would infringe on someones copyright.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Pragmatic, 11 Mar 2015 @ 6:07am

        Re: Re:

        That's because they have been conditioned to believe that copyright is property. Long copyright terms aren't helping.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 11 Mar 2015 @ 8:49am

      Re:

      Not just blues, but any genre with distinctive rhythmic patterns or chord progressions. Basically, any genre other than very broad ones like "pop" and "classical" (whose sub-genres do follow certain patterns), or genres that consciously reject such patterns.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Larry Zerner (profile), 10 Mar 2015 @ 4:51pm

    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).

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Mar 2015 @ 6:50pm

      Re:

      There is no harm in denying an injunction. whatever harm there is can be made "whole" by upping the total payment

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Mar 2015 @ 4:59pm

    INSPIRED by a genre would mean most country singers ,could be sued by someone,
    so no one could write any song with a seventys sound ,
    or say inspired by 80s synth new wave ,
    its a ridiculous judgement which would hurt the music industry .
    BY limiting any one that wants to write a new song.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Mar 2015 @ 5:16pm

    Copyright Law: Too complex for a jury

    So this is an indication that copyright law is just too dang complex for a jury to handle.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Mar 2015 @ 5:41pm

      Re: Copyright Law: Too complex for a jury

      Most law is too complex for a jury... have you ever been on a jury or seen how the majority of them function? It's dreadful.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Mar 2015 @ 6:06pm

    Hard case makes bad law?

    One wonders whether the jury based their decision purely on copyright law or whether they might have been influenced by a desire to punish Thicke and Williams for the "Blurred Lines" lyrics, which blur the line between merely creepy and actually pro-rape.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      orbitalinsertion (profile), 10 Mar 2015 @ 6:44pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Pragmatic, 11 Mar 2015 @ 6:09am

        Re: Re: Hard case makes bad law?

        The only moral right we Pirates support is the right to be identified as the author of a particular work. Attribution is a component of sharing, and sharing is caring, people.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 11 Mar 2015 @ 7:35pm

      Re: Hard case makes bad law?

      I don't think it had anything to do with the lyrics. I think it was confusion between extrinsic and intrinsic similarity + emotional Gaye family claiming harm. Juries love to award for injuries....

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Binko Barnes (profile), 10 Mar 2015 @ 6:34pm

    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."

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      orbitalinsertion (profile), 10 Mar 2015 @ 6:49pm

      Re:

      You mean it wasn't "promote milking the dead creative relative's works for all eternity by establishing Estates"?

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 10 Mar 2015 @ 8:56pm

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        jupiterkansas (profile), 10 Mar 2015 @ 10:15pm

        Re: Re:

        It's also clear that copyright should only apply for a limited time.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          That One Guy (profile), 10 Mar 2015 @ 10:32pm

          Re: Re: Re:

          Actual 'limited time' to be precise, not the 'for all intents and purposes eternal' duration we've got now.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

          • icon
            OldGeezer (profile), 11 Mar 2015 @ 12:10am

            Re: Re: Re: 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.

            reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              nasch (profile), 11 Mar 2015 @ 7:24am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              Whether they're living or not probably doesn't matter, as the record labels almost certainly hold the copyrights, so it will be 75 years from publication IIRC.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

            • icon
              That One Guy (profile), 11 Mar 2015 @ 10:03am

              Re: Re: Re: Re: Re:

              That's assuming that copyright isn't retroactively extended a few more times when it starts looking like something may actually enter into the public domain in the US, and given how unlikely that is, your grandchildren are probably out of luck as well.

              reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Blackfiredragon13 (profile), 10 Mar 2015 @ 6:41pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Blackfiredragon13 (profile), 11 Mar 2015 @ 12:57am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Mar 2015 @ 7:28pm

    I just heard both songs for the first time and they sound the same to me. Even stolen Led Zeppelin songs aren't as similar to the originals as this.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Drawoc Suomynona (profile), 10 Mar 2015 @ 9:15pm

      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-th ese-things-happen-20150129

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 10 Mar 2015 @ 7:55pm

    This is the sort of ruling that could cause creators to just stop making music.
    :P

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Captive Audience, 10 Mar 2015 @ 8:34pm

    What does the same type of "feel" mean? "Got to give it up" sounds kind of rapey. Is that what they mean?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    s.oneill, 10 Mar 2015 @ 10:37pm

    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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 11 Mar 2015 @ 10:31am

      Re: Music and patterns

      You could maybe play more than four chords?

      The argument that everything has been done is the security blanket of the unimaginative.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    AnonymousE, 11 Mar 2015 @ 12:36am

    "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!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Mar 2015 @ 2:42am

    Apparently Pharrell needs to infringe more often if he wants Goliath to be concerned with his earnings...

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Mar 2015 @ 3:27am

    "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.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Mar 2015 @ 4:48am

    That is an awesome verdict, hope we get more like it

    It will be a great day when we get more lawsuits than music or movies or books. Then and maybe only then, will something be done about copyright.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 11 Mar 2015 @ 10:35am

      Re: That is an awesome verdict, hope we get more like it

      You are aware that currently there are far more lawsuits happening than movies or music coming out, right? Literally hundreds of thousands of lawsuits are happening right now.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pragmatic, 11 Mar 2015 @ 6:12am

    Where are all the pro-copyright trolls?!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    David Muir (profile), 11 Mar 2015 @ 7:12am

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

    Only the very brave or the very committed will contribute to culture.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      jupiterkansas (profile), 11 Mar 2015 @ 7:30am

      Re:

      or the very rich.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 11 Mar 2015 @ 10:38am

      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.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 11 Mar 2015 @ 5:48pm

        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?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    jupiterkansas (profile), 11 Mar 2015 @ 10:47am

    The people here saying "just do something original" don't understand how the creative process works. Creating art isn't about being original. It's about adding a voice to the conversation. To do that, you have to speak the same language, which means using similar ideas and concepts.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 11 Mar 2015 @ 12:03pm

    The "Everything is a Remix" documentary really needs to become required viewing at schools... and copyright case juries.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Sheogorath (profile), 11 Mar 2015 @ 2:11pm

    This is a horrific copyright ruling that suggests that songs that merely have a similar feel may be infringing.
    Absolutely. Unless Robin Thicke and Pharrel Williams do appeal and win, then every four chord song ever released over the past few decades could be deemed to be infringing with only dead lyricists and composers benefiting from this ruling.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Sasha Asimova, 12 Mar 2015 @ 12:13am

    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: 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?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Sheogorath (profile), 14 Mar 2015 @ 12:48am

      Re: Would this make all Four Chords songs infringing?

      Also, since this is my idea, could I get royalties when this happens?
      Nice plagiarism there, so no, you can't. Double check my comment directly above yours.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Jim Wiggin, 23 Mar 2015 @ 8:59am

    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

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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