Neo-soul singer/songwriter Robin Thicke lost a huge copyright suit over the song “Blurred Lines” on Tuesday and people who know about copyright law never saw it coming.
“I was shocked, frankly, and I really think it’s a bad precedent,” entertainment lawyer David Herlihy told Business Insider, a day after a jury awarded a $US7.3 million to the family of Motown legend Marvin Gaye.
“If I imitate Eddie Van Halen’s guitar style, am I infringing on the copyright?” he added.
The Gaye estate filed a lawsuit in October 2013 that claimed “Blurred Lines” copied Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up,” and on Tuesday a jury handed down the surprise verdict against Thicke and his co-writer, Pharrell Williams.
Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I. (who rapped in “Blurred Lines”) actually sued the Gaye family first to ask a court to declare they weren’t infringing Gaye’s copyright after the family had threatened legal action — a sign that the “Blurred Lines” creators were confident they’d win their case.
Unlike some music copyright cases, this one didn’t involve straight-up sampling. Instead, the Gayes claimed “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up” had “significant and substantially similar compositional elements.” The jurors were told only to look at “sheet music” versions of the songs rather than their commercial recordings, according to The New York Times.
The main question was whether the two songs had the same melody.
“Melody is copyright-able,” New York University law professor Christopher Jon Sprigman told Business Insider. “‘Blurred Lines’ sounds something like the Marvin Gaye song. The reason they sound alike is they’re in the same genre. They don’t have the same melody.”
This can be a tough question for a jury of lay people to decide. To demonstrate the similarity of songs, Thicke gave testimony in which he played “Blurred Lines” alongside “Got to Give It Up” and songs by the Beatles, Michael Jackson and U2 on a keyboard.
“It’s not a jury of musicologists,” Sprigman said. “You have a jury falling back on their intuition. I’m not sure their intuitions are so great here.”
Northwestern Law professor Peter DiCola said he knew of several entertainment lawyers who witnessed the trial and thought the Gayes would lose. If he were on the jury, DiCola said, he certainly would have voted for non-infringement.
“They don’t sound the same to me,” DiCola said. “I think there should be space to work in a certain style.”
Indeed, the jury verdict in this case may start to give people the idea that “Marvin Gaye owns a certain style,” according to Sprigman. “Did the first impressionist own impressionism?” he added. “This is not what copyright law is supposed to be.”
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