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'Blurred Lines' Gets Focused Attention From Appeals Court

By George Khoury, Esq. on October 10, 2017 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

This past week, a three judge panel for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals heard oral arguments for the Blurred Lines appeal filed by Pharrell and Robin Thicke. If you're just now learning of the case, it is more than just a relatively juicy piece of legal celebrity gossip, there's actually some fascinating IP law behind the pop star gravitas.

In short, a jury found that Thicke and Pharrell ripped off Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up" in their song "Blurred Lines." Apart from the generational gap between the performers, there is a rather large and legal difference between music copyrighted prior to the mid-70s.

Blurred Copyrights

What made this such a fascinating case for appeal is the fact that when Marvin Gaye's music what copyrighted, sound recordings were not copyrightable. That means that the sheet music had to be copyrighted, which, as any musician can tell you, only provides so much information.

Time signatures, notes, and other elements used to create sheet music can all be used to help musicians learn how to play a song, but, as with all music, there's a certain "groove" that goes beyond the page. At the Blurred Lines trial, musicologists reconstructed and demonstrated the sheet music, but Gaye's actual recordings were never played. However, despite Gaye's heirs facing an obvious disadvantage due to this restriction, the jury still found in their favor.

Blurry Appeal

Attorneys for Pharrell and Thicke asserted that the lower federal court erred when weighing what claims could move forward on summary judgment, or when deciding what expert testimony to admit into evidence. Interestingly, appellants also claimed that not having a jury instruction requiring jurors to disregard Marvin Gaye's "groove" was reversible error (though, if you've ever listened to the man's music, disregarding that "groove" is a sheer impossibility).

Though the panel of judges seemed skeptical of the appellants' claims, it may find some issues that need to be retried, or reconsidered, given the generational gap in the law.

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