Over 200 Artists File Amicus Brief in Bid to Overturn Judgment

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Last year a California jury awarded over $7 million to Marvin Gaye’s family for copyright infringement. The federal jury found that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’s 2013 hit, “Blurred Lines,” had infringed upon Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit, “Got to Give it Up.” The judgment was later amended to a $5 million judgment but held that the Gaye family was to receive fifty percent of all future royalties from the song. Although the jury determined that the infringement was not willful, they still found that Thicke and Williams had failed to properly license Gaye’s work, and as such, would have to pay the Gaye family a significant portion of the profits garnered from the song’s success.

Last month, Thicke and Williams filed an appeal in the 9th Circuit of Appeals, hoping to overturn the judgment that has since rocked the music industry, and now over 200 artists have filed an amicus brief in support of Thicke and Williams. Famous industry names that include Hans Zimmer; Earth, Wind & Fire; Linkin Park; and John Oates of Hall & Oates, argue in the brief that the “verdict in this case threatens to punish songwriters for creating new music that is inspired by prior works.” The artists go on to state that new music often relies on inspiration from prior musical works, particularly if the two songs reside within the same musical genre. Fearing a chilling effect on songwriting, the music industry artists further argue that the verdict fails to delineate or provide clear guidance as to what actually constitutes copyright infringement.

Moreover, the amici take particular issue with the song at the heart of the case because they believe that the two works are so different as to not even “have similar melodies; the two songs do not even share a single melodic phrase.” As a result, the amici argue that the jury improperly determined infringement occurred based only on a perceived similarity in the overall “feel” or “groove” of the song.

In addition to the amicus brief filed by the musical artists, ten musicologists have separately filed their own amicus brief. They similarly argue that the verdict hampers songwriting, but argue in their legal brief that the trial court should have originally denied the lawsuit at the summary judgement phase. Interestingly, Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” was one of the last songs written before federal copyright law was amended to protect sound recordings. As a result, only the sheet music registered with the U.S. Copyright Office by Gaye, and not the actual sound recording, is copyright-protected. Despite this, the judge decided to permit an edited version of Gaye recording to be played for the jury, a decision that the appellants now argue was improper.

Undoubtedly this appeal will be closely followed by the music and legal industry alike as it will have lasting implications on what federal courts consider to be copyright infringement.

For more information on this topic, please visit our Copyright Infringement service page, which is part of our Software and Copyrights practice.

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