A US appeals court upheld Wednesday a landmark $5.3 million verdict that Robin Thicke’s hit “Blurred Lines” lifted from Marvin Gaye, dismissing warnings that many more artists could face lawsuits.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco made its 2-1 ruling largely on procedural reasons, saying it had no legal grounds to second-guess the 2015 judgment.
In an impassioned dissent, Judge Jacqueline Nguyen revisited the substance of the case and said it was clear that “Blurred Lines” did not copy Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up.”
“They differ in melody, harmony and rhythm. Yet by refusing to compare the two works, the majority establishes a dangerous precedent that strikes a devastating blow to future musicians and composers everywhere,” she wrote.
The appeal had been closely watched by songwriters as the case marked a rare time that a court backed a complaint of copyright infringement as lawsuits proliferate against the authors of top hits.
The family of soul legend Gaye, who was killed in 1984, had initially been awarded $7 million by a jury in Los Angeles for similarities to “Blurred Lines,” which was the top-grossing US song of 2013 and co-written by prolific pop producer Pharrell Williams.
The amount was later reduced to $5.3 million, but the Gaye family also was given 50 percent of subsequent revenue from “Blurred Lines.”
Judge Milan Smith, writing for the majority, said that music with its many elements was “broad” rather than “thin” in its form of copyright, unlike for example the infringement of a specific corporate logo.
The Gayes therefore “need not prove virtual identity to substantiate their infringement action,” but rather just show substantial similarities, he wrote.
Smith said it was proper for the jury to decide whether to believe experts testifying before the trial and rejected the warnings in Nguyen’s dissent as “unfounded hyperbole.”
“Rather, our decision hinges on settled procedural principles and the limited nature of our appellate review,” he wrote.
Nguyen said that the decision risked expanding the idea of copyright to whole genres, with artists held liable for staying within conventions of a certain style.
“But for the freedom to borrow others’ ideas and express them in new ways, artists would simply cease producing new works — to society’s great detriment,” she wrote.
“The Gayes, no doubt, are pleased by this outcome. They shouldn’t be. They own copyrights in many musical works, each of which (including “Got to Give It Up”) now potentially infringes the copyright of any famous song that preceded it.”