by: Robert Wagner, intellectual property attorney at the Pittsburgh law firm of Picadio Sneath Miller & Norton, P.C. (Robert Wagner on G+)
On Tuesday, a jury in Los Angeles reached a verdict in favor of Marvin Gaye, Jr.’s family against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, finding that Williams and Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines” infringed Marvin Gaye’s copyright in his song “Got to Give It Up.” The jury awarded approximately $7.4 million in damages.
In 1976, Marvin Gaye, Jr. composed the song “Got to Give It Up,” which went on to become a musical hit and reached number one on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart in the United States. Marvin Gaye registered the musical composition “Got to Give It Up (Part 1 and 2)” with the United States Copyright Office in 1977 (Reg. No. EP 366-530), and the registration was subsequently renewed in 2005 (RE 910-939). Marvin Gaye was a Grammy winning performing and is a member of the Rock-and-Roll Hall of Fame. He passed away in 1984.
In 2013, artists Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke, and Clifford Harris, Jr. composed the hit song “Blurred Lines,” which also went on to become a huge success, selling over six million copies and being viewed over 250 million times on the internet. In various interviews, Robin Thicke indicated that he had been influenced by Marvin Gaye’s work and wanted to make something like that. He further indicated that “Got to Give It Up” was one of his favorite songs of all time.
Shortly after the song was released in March 2013, the Marvin Gaye’s family began to assert that “Blurred Lines” infringed the copyright on “Got to Give It Up” and threatened to bring a lawsuit against Williams and Thicke. In response, Williams and Thicke filed a pre-emptory lawsuit in Los Angeles on August 15, 2013, seeking a declaratory judgment that they did not infringe any of Marvin Gaye’s copyrights (Williams v. Bridgeport Music, Inc., No. 2:13-cv-06004, US. District Court for the Central District of California). Gaye’s family filed a counterclaim for infringement in response.
After discovery, the Williams and Thicke filed a motion for summary judgment, arguing that the case need not go before a jury. (The parties’ summary judgment arguments can be found here–Williams/Thicke and Gaye.) The Judge denied their motion (his opinion is here), and the case proceeded before a jury. After nine days of testimony and presentations, the jury returned its verdict, finding that Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke infringed the copyright on “Got to Give It Up” and awared approximately $7.4 million in damages to Marvin Gaye’s family. The jury concluded, however, that the infringement was not willful.
Williams and Thicke have subsequently filed a notice of appeal with the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.
Copyright infringement cases are never a sure things, especially when they go to a jury. Williams and Thicke chose to file suit seeking a declaratory judgment that they did not infringe, which was a risky maneuver. While there are no guarantees that Gaye’s family would not have filed a lawsuit anyway, the decision may have escalated the conflict. Individuals who have been accused of infringement need to consider carefully whether a declaratory judgment action is the prudent thing to do. In some cases it will be, because it gives the accused infringer an opportunity to control the forum in which the case is heard and when the lawsuit begins, among other things. It may be worthwhile in some cases to accelerate a decision, even if that means risking getting an unfavorable outcome. This is just one of the many decisions that litigants need to consider carefully before lawsuits are filed and threats are made. There is likely no one right answer that applies to all cases. Instead, litigants and their attorneys need to carefully think through the various risks and benefits before they proceed.
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