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The jury in the lawsuit over Pharrell and Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" found the song stole elements from Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up." Now the duo owe Gaye's children $7.3 million in combined damages and a share of profits from the newer song.
The jury award is the largest in a copyright infringement case, and critics wonder if it might have a chilling effect on the way new music is created.
The song "Blurred Lines" was a smash hit in 2013, but was in legal trouble from the start. Pharrell and Thicke released the song in March of that year, and in August sued Gaye's family and Bridgeport Music in an effort to gain a declaratory judgment that "Blurred Lines" did not infringe on Gaye's copyright.
Gaye's family countersued the following year, and the trial began in February 2015. Jurors heard from both Pharrell and Thicke, with the latter playing several songs on a keyboard to demonstrate differences and similarities.
In the end, a unanimous jury awarded Gaye's children Nona, Frankie, and Marvin Gaye III $4 million in damages, $3.3 million of the purported $17 million the song made in profit, and $9,000 in statutory damages. A joint statement from Pharrell, Thicke, and co-performer T.I. indicated the trio are reviewing the jury's decision and considering their legal options.
Copyright protections give the authors of artistic productions the exclusive privilege to control copying, publication, and sale for their lifetimes, and extend to 50 years after the author's death. (The copyright passed to Gaye's heirs after the singer was shot and killed by his father in 1983.) Copyrights can be filed and registered with the U.S. Customs Service.
In order to demonstrate copyright infringement, a plaintiff must show a substantial similarity between the original and the alleged copy. Since direct copying or plagiarism can be difficult to prove, courts allow infringement to be established through circumstantial evidence.
The essence of the lawsuit came down to Gaye's notes of the song after writing it in 1977. The copyright Gaye's family was defending only applied to sheet music, which also meant that jurors were only allowed to hear a stripped down reproduction of the musician's notations without Gaye's voice, backup vocals and some percussion elements that made up the full version of "Got to Give It Up."
In this case, it seems jurors were convinced that even an incomplete version of Gaye's song showed enough similarity with "Blurred Lines," perhaps owing in part to Thicke's admission in interviews that "Got to Give It Up" was one of his favorite songs and that he told Pharrell they "should make something like that, something with that groove."