After deliberating for two days, a California jury awarded $7.36 million in damages to Marvin Gaye’s family, finding that the best selling song of 2013, “Blurred Lines” infringed on the Marvin Gaye classic “Got to Give It Up.” The lawsuit stems from a 2013 preemptive suit from Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, who sought a declaratory judgment that their song did not infringe on the Gaye chart topper. Gaye’s children, who inherited the copyright from their father countersued, and included the record company Universal Music Group and Clifford Harris Jr. (professionally known as T.I.).
The week long trial featured testimony from both Pharrell and Robin Thicke. Pharrell testified that he was inspired by music from that time but that the song was completely original. Interestingly enough, the jurors never heard the Marvin Gaye song during trial. U.S. District Judge John Kronstadt granted Pharrell and Thicke a motion in limine to preclude the Gaye family from playing “Got to Give it Up”. Managing partner of Santucci Priore, P.L., Michael Santucci says this is because Marvin Gaye only owned a copyright for the musical composition and not the recordings of the song. Santucci says that prior to 1972 sound recordings were not eligible for copyright protection. The judge ruled that the jurors could only consider what was listed on paper and filed at the Library of Congress.
Copyright is a form of protection provided to the authors of “original works of authorship.” It provides protection for the “original and creative expression of an idea which is embodied in a tangible medium.” The test for originality? The work must have “more than a de minimis level of creativity.” For a song, two different copyrights can be obtained – one for “musical composition” and the other for “sound recording.”
As this case demonstrates, the penalties for infringing a copyright are severe. A copyright owner may receive actual damages, profits, statutory damages, and willful infringement damages. There are three necessary elements that the Plaintiff must prove for copyright infringement – (1) Plaintiff owns a valid copyright (2) Defendant actually copied Plaintiff’s work and (3) Defendant’s work is substantially similar to Plaintiff’s work. This can be proven through either direct or circumstantial evidence.
To prove their damages, the Gaye family gave everyone a rare insight into how much money a hit song makes. Accountants testified that Thicke made $5.6 million, Pharrell made $5.2 million, T.I. made $700K, and another $16 million was split between the record label and publishing company. The jury found that the infringement was not willful.
While copyright lawsuits are common, it is very rare to see them go to trial. Most settle, like the recent suit between Sam Smith and Tom Petty. It will be interesting to see how this impacts future music copyright infringement cases. As always, stay tuned.