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US appeals court declines to reconsider controversial Blurred Lines judgement

By | Published on Thursday 12 July 2018

Blurred Lines

The Ninth Circuit appeals court in the US has declined to overturn its controversial decision regarding the controversial judgement in the controversial copyright case centred on the controversial 2013 pop song ‘Blurred Lines’. We now await to see if Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke choose to take the controversy on to Supreme Court.

Williams and Thicke appealed to the Ninth Circuit – of course – after a jury sided with the Marvin Gaye estate in the original court battle over ‘Blurred Lines’ in 2015. The dynamic duo were accused of ripping off Gaye song ‘Got To Give It Up’ on their big hit after Thicke talked in a magazine interview about how Gaye’s music had inspired the track.

It was actually Williams and Thicke who first went legal, seeking court confirmation that their song didn’t infringe Gaye’s earlier work. The Gaye estate responded with their own litigation and ultimately prevailed in court, winning $5.3 million in damages and half of the ‘Blurred Lines’ song copyright.

The judgement was controversial within much of the songwriting community because many felt it set a dangerous precedent that could result in a flood of copyright infringement lawsuits against songs that had been influenced by earlier works. This was based on support for the argument put forward by Williams and Thicke that ‘Blurred Lines’ shared a ‘vibe’ with ‘Got To Give It Up’ but wasn’t a straight rip-off.

But in March, the Ninth Circuit pretty much endorsed the jury’s decision in the original court battle and rejected the various arguments put forward by Williams and Thicke’s lawyers as to why that judgement had been flawed. However, there was one dissenting judge in the appeals court, and she dissented big time.

That judge, Jacqueline Nguyen, said that her colleagues had allowed “the Gayes to accomplish what no one has before: copyright a musical style”. She went on: “‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Got to Give It Up’ are not objectively similar. They differ in melody, harmony and rhythm. [Therefore the ruling] establishes a dangerous precedent that strikes a devastating blow to future musicians and composers everywhere”.

With that in mind, Williams and Thicke, backed by various academics and music industry groups, urged the appeals court to reconsider its March ruling. They were actually pushing for a so called ‘en banc’ rehearing, which is where all the court’s judges would hear the appeal rather than just a panel of three.

Such hearings in the US appeal courts are rare and usually only occur where the outcome of the case is seen to be of wide-ranging importance. Many in the music community would argue that the outcome of this case is of wide-ranging importance, though it still seemed unlikely an en banc rehearing would be granted.

Either way, the court declined to reconsider the case yesterday, providing no explanation for that decision. They also republished March’s ruling in a slightly edited form, also without explanation. It means that, for now, the 2015 judgement pretty much stands.

Williams and Thicke do still have another route of appeal though, and could take the whole matter to the US Supreme Court. We await confirmation of their intent.