What do courts consider when determining whether a song infringes on another’s copyright?
In a highly-publicized copyright infringement lawsuit, family members of legendary singer Marvin Gaye contended that pop icons Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams unlawfully encroached on the unique sounds of Mr. Gaye’s hit 1977 song “Got to Give it Up” with their Summer 2013 mega-hit “Blurred Lines.”
Eight jurors have now agreed and rendered a verdict of $7.4 million in favor of the Gaye family. According to accounting statements entered into evidence during the trial, “Blurred Lines” earned approximately $16 million. Rapper T.I., who was also named in the suit, was not found liable in the matter since his lyrical contribution to the song was considered in no way related or similar to Gaye’s song.
When it comes to copyright laws, those holding the rights also hold the opportunity to defend against any subsequent content or creation that comes close to the protected version. The issue lies, however, in determining how similar a creation must be in order to infringe the copyright – as freedom of speech also comes into play to protect against overly broad or vague copyrights.
When discerning between a similar sound and a true infringement, courts are required to decide if the challenged piece contains “substantial similarity” to the original. Of course, this inquiry involves some level of subjective analysis; what sounds identical to one may sound completely distinguishable to another. Plagiarized music need not be identical to its source, but court opinions have hinged on some of the following issues:
* Whether chords and notes used are identical
* Using the same title
* Whether lyrics are identical or near-identical
* Whether the copied version contains only a very minor change (e.g., altering the baseline).
For some juries, making a decision on this issue can be extremely difficult. In one famous copyright infringement case between Eagles front man John Fogarty and 1970s icons Creedence Clearwater Revival, the jury actually requested John Fogarty appear in the courtroom to perform the alleged copyrighted song – and determined it sounded similar, not identical.
The attorneys at Thomas M. Lancia PLLC have experience with copyright infringement litigation and will zealously represent your interests. Contact us today at (212)964-3157.