The “Blurred Lines” of Copyright Scope

Author: Jon Siderits, Associate Member, University of Cincinnati Law Review

On March 10, 2015, a federal jury found that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams infringed a copyright owned by the heirs of Marvin Gaye, by copying substantially from Gaye’s song “Got to Give It Up” when they created their 2013 hit “Blurred Lines.”[1] While other recent copyright disputes involving major recording artists have settled without either party ever filing suit, the battle between the “Blurred Lines” writers and Gaye’s heirs was particularly contentious, all the way up to the uncertain ending.[2] While the heirs have ultimately triumphed (assuming Thicke and Williams do not appeal), a pre-trial decision by the presiding judge to limit the scope of their copyright to a set of written sheet music, rather than the song’s recording, easily could have derailed their case and led to the opposite outcome. Despite the judge’s effort to apply the correct, albeit antiquated, law to the issue, extending the copyright protection to the recording would have been an appropriate, legally supported decision that would have sent a clear message to would-be infringers, and likely would have resulted in an earlier resolution of the case.

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