Sometimes, it seems like the greatest source of interest in today’s music industry is the endless legal wranglings taking place therein — many of them are related to the industry’s slow and painful evolution from one that made money selling physical records into one that’s trying to make money in a digital age. Perhaps the highest profile case of recent years, though, has been a rather more old-fashioned one: the estate of Marvin Gaye vs. Pharrell Williams, T.I. and Robin Thicke, who have been at each other’s throats for several years over the vexed question of whether “Blurred Lines” ripped off one of Gaye’s songs. It seemed like the matter had finally been concluded last year, when a US district judge ruled against Williams et al, ordering them to pay $7.4m (later reduced on appeal to $5.3m) to Gaye’s estate, along with 50% of future royalties.
But no, because nothing is ever over when there are still lawyers’ fees to be earned, the trio are now appealing the verdict. The appeal centers around the question of whether the judge in the original case was right to allow comparison of the two recordings, rather than just the sheet music of the two songs. The brief filed yesterday with the US Court of Appeals, is an interesting piece of reading, as far as looking at how the law works — no-one is arguing that the two songs don’t sound similar, but instead that that fact shouldn’t have been considered by the court:
The judgment should be reversed because “Blurred Lines” is not substantially similar to “Got To Give It Up” as a matter of law. Under the Copyright Act of 1909, the copyright on “Got To Give It Up” extends only to the sheet music for the song as registered and deposited at the Copyright Office, and not to the compositional elements of its sound recording. The deposit copy of “Got To Give It Up” that its owners chose to file is merely a “lead sheet”— that is, a skeletal sketch of the song’s main melody, lyrics, and chords. The deposit copy of “Got To Give It Up” omits percussion parts, keyboard parts, backup vocals, background noise and bass lines and other aspects of the sound recording, which are not protected under the copyright. This case thus should have been a spare and simple exercise in comparing “Blurred Lines” to the few musical elements that appear in the deposit copy for “Got To Give It Up.”
It’s hard to know which way this will go, to be honest, but… well, we’ll be watching with interest, and also feeling quietly thankful that this is someone else’s problem to solve.