In a ruling that could set up one of the biggest trials ever over alleged song theft,
U.S. District Judge John Kronstadt on Thursday denied Pharrell Williams and Robin
Thicke's motion for summary judgment in a lawsuit that explores the origins of the
blockbuster hit "Blurred Lines."The two musicians filed a lawsuit in September 2013
after receiving threats from Marvin Gaye's family, who contend the song is a knockoff
of "Got to Give It Up." The lawsuit sought declaratory relief that "Blurred Lines" was
non-infringing, painting the defendant as attempting to claim ownership of an entire
genre. That led to a countersuit where the Gaye camp asserted that the song was
indeed infringing, that Thicke had a "Marvin Gaye fixation," and that he had also copied
a second song, "Love After War," from Gaye's "After the Dance."
Both sides trotted out musicologists and mashups, debated the nuances of copyright
law and even addressed Thicke's wild deposition comments admitting drug abuse
and lying to the media. The end result is Judge Kronstadt's conclusion that the case
shouldn't end now. The Gaye family, he writes, has "made a sufficient showing that
elements of 'Blurred Lines' may be substantially similar to protected, original elements
of 'Got to Give It Up.' Defendants have identified these with particularity for purposes
of analytic dissection."
Specifically, the judge points to genuine issues of material fact existing as to the
substantial similarity of signature phrases, hooks, bass lines, keyboard chords,
harmonic structures and vocal melodies of the two songs. The judge also writes
that the Gaye family has offered sufficient evidence to create triable issues about
whether their 11-note signature phrase, four-note hook, four-bar bass line, 16-bar
harmonic structure and four-note vocal melody are protectable expressions. The
judge also refuses to allow Williams and Thicke to win at this juncture on claims
tied to "Love After War." The ruling isn't a complete loss for the singer and his producer.
There was much controversy between the two sides as to whether Gaye's copyrights
are limited to sheet music compositions or whether they extend to features heard on
the "Got to Give It Up" sound recording. For the purposes of the analysis, the judge
looks to the 1909 Copyright Act, which would have given the Gaye family the right
to include more than just the sheet music if the work was published with proper notices
or part of necessary deposits at the Copyright Office. The judge concludes that the Gaye
family hasn't sufficiently shown it did either, and thus, they "have failed to produce evidence
that creates a genuine issue as to whether the copyrights in 'Got to Give It Up' and 'After
the Dance' encompass material other than that reflected in the lead sheets deposited
with the Copyright Office."
As a result, the analysis of whether Thicke's "Blurred Lines" is substantially similar to
Gaye's "Got to Give It Up" won't examine such things as the congruence of percussive
choices or backup vocals, though there may or may not be some trial attention on such
features in the intrinsic analysis (the judgment of an ordinary person). That issue seems
likely to come up again given the reactions by the lawyers provided below.
Judge Kronstadt also addresses Thicke's deposition comments where he admitted that
he had lied to the media about going into the studio with Marvin Gaye in mind and that
in fact he didn't have much to do with the creation of "Blurred Lines." This came up because
copyright law has a concept called the "inverse-ratio rule" where lots of access to a song
necessitates less proof of similarity. The judge writes that "Thicke’s inconsistent statements
do not constitute direct evidence of copying," though that hardly helps him today because
Marvin Gaye is nearly universally known and Williams and Thicke "concede access,"
basically meaning they've at least heard Gaye's 1977 hit.