Yesterday, a divided panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals largely affirmed a trial court judgment finding that Pharrell Williams, Clifford Harris and Robin Thicke’s 2013 hit single “Blurred Lines” infringed upon the defendants’ copyright in Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give it Up.” Williams v. Gaye, No. 15-56800.
The decision of the panel majority (Judges Milan D. Smith and Mary Murguia) is a cautionary tale of how the procedural posture of a case can be outcome determinative. The majority held that following a full trial on the merits, the appeals court could not review the trial court’s earlier denial of a summary judgment motion. The issues to be resolved were not purely legal, the majority continued, and the factual issues hotly disputed by the parties’ experts. Because of the full trial, the majority concluded that they could not conduct its own summary judgment analysis.
The Court then reviewed the verdict and found there was no basis to overturn the jury’s decision as it related to the Thicke Parties because there was sufficient evidence from which they could conclude that Williams, Harris and Thicke had access to Gaye’s work and the two songs were substantially similar. After a jury verdict, the Court continued, an appellate court cannot weigh the evidence for itself and make credibility rulings on the parties’ experts.
The dissent (Judge Jacqueline H. Nguyen) decried the majority’s opinion as allowing Gaye to “to accomplish what no one has before: copyright a musical style” and setting “a dangerous precedent that strikes a devastating blow to future musicians and composers everywhere.” Though there are some similarities between the songs, the dissent contended, most of the similarities were short patterns that are not themselves protectable under the copyright laws. The dissent warned that the majorities’ decision will stifle creativity as copyright law is only meant to protect authors’ expression as opposed to the idea underlying that expression.
Williams, Harris and Thicke now have the option of asking for review from the entire Ninth Circuit or seeking review by the U.S. Supreme Court.
For more information on copyright law or the Ninth Circuit’s decision, please contact Kathleen Barnett Einhorn, Esq., Director of the firm’s Complex Commercial Litigation Group at firstname.lastname@example.org, or Jennifer Borek, Esq., a Partner in the Complex Commercial Litigation Group at email@example.com.