The ‘Blurred Lines’ of Copyright Law

On March 21, 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th circuit ruled in favor of the Gaye family in the ‘Blurred Lines’ case. In a 2-to-1 decision, the court held that ‘Blurred Lines’ had in fact infringed on Gaye’s ‘Got To Give It Up’, and that the latter was entitled to copyright protection. However, Judge Nguyen delivered a dissent that he believes broadens the impact of this case for the music industry. In his dissent, Judge Nguyen argues that the majority opinion allows artists to copyright an entire style of music.

One highly debated aspect of the trial was that jurors were unable to hear the disputed pieces of music at any point during the trial. This decision was made because music recordings were not protected by the original copyright for ‘Got To Give It Up’, which was issued under the 1909 copyright act.  However, jurors were permitted to hear testimony of experts who delivered their opinions based on sheet music of the two pieces of music. According to Judge Nguyen, musicologist Judith Finell (The expert hired by the Gaye’s) selectively chose to compare aspects of each song that were similar, such as short patterns of rhythm or pitch, rather than compare the compositions as whole pieces of work. If the pieces had been compared in whole, Judge Nguyen argues that an extrinsic test would only lead to a judgement in Williams and Thicke’s favor.