An Update on the Robin Thicke / Marvin Gaye “Blurred Lines” Litigation

With the 2015 Grammy’s now behind us, another battle of performers set to take the stage this week…the legal stage that is.  Trial is scheduled to start soon before U.S. District Judge John A Kronstadt in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California to determine whether Robin Thicke’s 2013 hit, “Blurred Lines,” infringed upon Marvin Gaye’s 1977 “Got To Give It Up.”  Thicke and his producers, Pharrell Williams and Clifford Harris, Jr., have been in a legal dispute with Gaye’s children since filing a lawsuit in August 2013  seeking a declaratory judgement that “Blurred Lines” did not unlawfully infringe “Got To Give It Up.”  In their complaint, the plaintiffs indicated the Gaye defendants had claimed that the songs “Blurred Lines” and “Got To Give It Up” had the same “feel” or “sound.”  However, Thicke’s complaint insisted being “reminiscent of a ‘sound’ is not copyright infringement . . .” and, though “Blurred Lines” was intended to evoke an era of music (read: undeniably Gaye’s era of music), that the Gaye defendants are in essence “claiming ownership to an entire genre” of music.

The Gaye family struck back with a countersuit alleging not only that Thicke blatantly copied a”constellation of distinctive and  significant compositional elements of Marvin Gaye’s classic #1 song, ‘Got to Give it Up,'” but also had a “Marvin Gaye Fixation” which resulted in him copying other Gaye songs including, “After the Dance.”  Accordingly, a second copyright infringement claim was asserted over Thicke’s “Love After War,” claiming this compilation shared a similar chorus and hook melody with Gaye’s “After the Dance.”  Acknowledging in their counterclaim that “Blurred Lines” was an unprecedented commercial hit (after reaching number one in at least 114 countries and going sextuple platinum by selling over six million copies), the Gaye defendants asserted that inclusion of signature elements of “Got To Give It Up” significantly enhanced the “musical and financial value of ‘Blurred Lines.'”  At trial, they are seeking both injunctive and monetary relief for Thicke’s alleged infringement.

However, in a significant victory for the plaintiffs last month, Judge Kronstadt held that the Gaye defendants could not play the original of Gaye’s famous recording of “Got To Give It Up” during trial for jurors, on the basis that they owned only the written composition while Motown (not a party to the suit) owns the hit recording that includes Gaye’s vocals.  Judge Konstadt previously ruled that the dispute was governed by the Copyright Act of 1909, rather than the Copyright Act of 1976, which limited copyright protections to only those musical elements that appeared in the written sheet music deposited with the Copyright Office.  Prior to trial, Thicke/Williams filed a motion to exclude Gaye’s original sound recording on the basis that it would be confusing to the jury and prejudicial because it contained “substantial additional musical elements in which Defendants do not own any copyright.”  Judge Konstadt initially ordered that Gaye’s sound recordings were inadmissible entirely; however, two days later he issued a new order allowing the defendants to present edited recordings (but only those portions of the recording that are protected) at trial as long as the recordings remove all unprotected elements, such as percussion and backup vocals).

In a statement following Judge Kronstadt’s initial ruling, Thicke and Williams’ attorney, Howard E. King, noted that while his clients love Marvin Gaye (who doesn’t?), the issues to be determined in the multi-milion dollar copyright infringement trial do not involve Gaye’s voice, character, or charisma, but rather whether ‘”Blurred Lines” is a copy of what he wrote in the sheet music [which is the only thing protected under the 1909 Copyright Act],” which he obviously denied.  Although the jury will be able to hear some of Gaye’s voice pursuant to the new order, as this article points out it appears that, if anything was copied at all, it was likely the unprotected portions of Gaye’s song, which are not only totally free to be copied under the applicable law, but will also not be played for the jury.

We will be watching as this trial develops in the coming weeks.  Judge Kronstadt’s ruling leaves us wondering whether the Gaye defendants will be able to fully convey their point without the aid of playing Marvin Gaye’s original recording for jurors or will they be left thinking “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing”?  In the meantime, listen to this YouTube compilation of “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give it Up” for yourself and let us know what you think.

(See the complaint here courtesy of The Hollywood Reporter).

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