$7.4 million. That’s how much Marvin Gaye’s children were awarded for the “Blurred Lines” verdict from Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams.
If you haven’t followed this particular case, or don’t really know what it is about, let me try to explain it. The 2013 hit “Blurred Lines,” written by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams was deemed to have infringed Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up.”
You may be asking, how or why was this even brought up? Let’s take a look.
The Copyright Infringement
It started with Thicke and Williams filing a declaratory judgment (basically, they were asking the court to determine the scope of Marvin Gaye’s legally protectable rights before they were actually sued for copyright infringement).
Thicke and Williams were hoping to avoid any legal issues with “Blurred Lines” regarding copyright infringement, claiming they had written their song independently. But once they brought their suit, Gaye’s family counterclaimed, claiming that “Blurred Lines” did infringe on their father’s song, and thus, Thicke and Williams owed them money.
Since Marvin Gaye died in 1984, it was up to his family (particularly his children) to protect his rights. Now you may be thinking, does it really matter? Obviously Gaye’s family thought they did; they sued for nearly $25 million.
The main hurdle Gaye’s family had to overcome was whether or not the sound recording produced in the recording studio was part of Gaye’s copyright in the song. Most copyrights these days are covered by the Copyright Act of 1976. The problem, though, was “Got to Give It Up” is covered by the 1909 act (because of when it was written), which did not protect sound recordings.
In their defense, Thicke and Williams argued they went with the “feel” of the music, not the actual music to create “Blurred Lines.” Ultimately though, the court did determine that Gaye’s family was entitled to some compensation because “Blurred Lines” infringed. These damages came out to about $4 million in actual damages, and $3.4 million in profits. Since the infringement was not found to be willful, the statutory damages – usually very high dollar amounts meant to punish the wrongdoers – did not apply.
The Lesson to Learn
What does this mean for you and me? It means we have to be careful about what we write.
For example, if wrote a song that conjured up Taylor Swift’s “Shake it Off,” Taylor Swift may be able to come at you, claiming you copied her song. Even if you argue the “feel” is what you were going for, that may not be enough of a defense to overcome a claim of infringement.
Needless to say, there has been mixed reaction about how this case was handled. On the one hand, many people feel that Marvin Gaye’s children were entitled to compensation because the songs were similar. Others, however, feel that the songs were just within the same “genre,” and Thicke and Williams’ were actually paying homage to Marvin Gaye’s style in their work.
Should they be punished because they pay homage, or even get inspired by other artists?
Either way, the biggest takeaway that can be drawn from this is you have to be careful with what you create. Even if you don’t intend to “copy” someone’s work, other people may feel that you did… and who knows, you may end up owing someone $7 million, too.
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- Lessons from the $7.4 Million Blurred Lines Verdict - March 12, 2015