The recent jury decision in a civil case against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, who co-wrote Thicke’s hit song “Blurred Lines,” has made shockwaves in the music and pop culture industry. A jury decided that the two must pay the family of late singer Marvin Gaye $7.4 million dollars because they “unlawfully copied” Got To Give It Up, a song written by Gaye in 1977. While some people applauded the decision, the jury’s decision was ultimately not just in this case. Let’s take a closer look as to why.
First, it’s important to note that the jury was not comparing the finished versions of Got to Give it Up with Blurred Lines. This is because Martin Gaye’s copyright is only on his hand-lettered sheet music, not the finished track. The hand-lettered sheet music has notable differences from the finished track, because it never indicates that the song should use a falsetto voice or an upbeat tempo, both of which were present in the Blurred Lines track.
The jury was therefore only allowed to hear renditions of Got to Give It Up solely based on the sheet music, along with an edited, stripped-down version of the track that reflected the sheet music. On the surface, this should have helped Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke’s case—but the jury ultimately decided against them.
The primary reason that the jury decided against them may be due to the fact that the jury was not instructed well enough on copyright law, and when something is considered infringement—or in other words, unlawful copying. Unlawful copying requires a positive answer to a two-part copyright test: “Did they copy?” and “Was the copying legally improper?”
The second part of the question is arguably more important than the first, but in the Williams and Thicke case, the instructions overly emphasized the first question without emphasizing the second. Instruction 27 to the jury, for example, said: “Anyone who copies original elements of a copyrighted work during the term of the copyright without the owner’s permission infringes the copyright.”
Yet, as anyone with an experience in copyright and copyright law can attest, this is not the whole story. Copying can be legal, and it can even be encouraged.
Due to the general confusion and poor instruction regarding copyright law, there may be a re-trial in the case against Williams and Thicke. You can find more TV & online entertainment options at www.chartercabledeals.org/.