A jury’s verdict that Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke copied Marvin Gaye’s music to create their hit song ‘Blurred Lines’ won’t just be felt by the singers’ pocketbooks — it has the potential to change how musicians work and could open the door to new copyright claims.
An eight-person jury determined that Williams and Thicke copied elements of Gaye’s 1977 hit ‘Got to Give It Up’ and ordered the pair to pay nearly $7.4 million to the late singer’s three children.
Gaye’s daughter, Nona Gaye, wept as the verdict was read and later told reporters, “Right now, I feel free. Free from ... Pharrell Williams’ and Robin Thicke’s chains and what they tried to keep on us and the lies that were told.”
The music industry may feel new constraints in the coming years as artists — and lawyers — sort through the verdict’s implications.
Howard King, lead attorney for Thicke and Williams, told jurors in closing arguments that a verdict for the Gaye family would have a chilling effect on musicians’ trying to evoke an era or create an homage to the sound of earlier musicians. Williams contended during the trial that he was only trying to mimic the “feel” of Gaye’s late 1970s music, but insisted he did not use elements of his idol’s work.
“Today’s successful verdict, with the odds more than stacked against the Marvin Gaye estate, could redefine what copyright infringement means for recording artists,” said Glen Rothstein, an intellectual property attorney with Greenberg Glusker.
“The Gaye verdict is precedential in that whereas prior to today, it was generally understood that paying homage to musical influences was an acceptable, and indeed commonplace way of conducting business and even showing respect for one’s musical idols, after today, doubt has been cast on where the line will be drawn for copyright infringement purposes,” Rothstein said.
The Gaye family will seek an injunction against ‘Blurred Lines’, which will give them leverage to negotiate for royalties and other concessions such as songwriting credits.
Music copyright trials are rare, but allegations that a song copies another artist’s work are common. Recently, singers Sam Smith and Tom Petty reached an agreement that conferred songwriting credit to Petty on Smith’s song, ‘Stay With Me’ which resembled Petty’s hit ‘I Won’t Back Down’.
King, who also represents numerous musicians, said record labels are going to become more reluctant to release music that’s similar to other works. “This is going to make them more conservative, and less likely that you’re going to have new music,” King said.
That assertion was mocked by Richard Busch, the lead attorney for the Gaye family.
“While Mr Williams’ lawyer suggested in his closing argument that the world would come to an end, and music would cease to exist if they were found liable, I still see the sun shining. The world has not come to an end,” Busch said after the verdict. “The music industry will go on.”
The federal lawsuit was originally filed two years ago by the ‘Blurred Lines’ stars as a preemptive legal strike to protect the song from claims that it was derived from the decades-old Gaye hit. The Gaye family filed counterclaims alleging that Thicke’s fascination with the soul icon led to the misappropriation of his work .
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