Proprietary vibes: a new dawn for copyright trolls?


Yesterday, a jury decided that Blurred Lines infringed the copyright of Marvin Gaye's Got to Give It Up. The consensus seems to be that the ruling is a troublesome one, connecting the sheet music actually owned by Gaye's estate to the "feel" of its recording–and anything that sounds like it in future.

Spencer Kornhaber at The Atlantic:

No one contends that "Blurred Lines" is a straight musical copy of Gaye's "Got to Give It Up"; unlike with Sam Smith paying royalties to Tom Petty, the issue is less about chords than about "feel." The "Blurred Lines" groove hits the ear a lot like the Gaye one—the musicians admitted as much—but when, exactly, does feel become infringement?

The Telegraph reports that it has "the potential to change how musicians work and could open the door to new copyright claims."

The music industry may feel new constraints in the coming years as artists – and lawyers – sort through the verdict and its implications. … Howard King, lead attorney for Thicke and Williams, told jurors in closing arguments that a verdict for the Gaye family would have a chilling effect on musicians' trying to evoke an era or create an homage to the sound of earlier musicians.

The Guardian's Keith Harris suggests, however, that copyright law is a red herring: the main upshot will be a "desire to avoid going in front of capricious juries."

Observers with no financial stake in the proceeding also fretted. To them, the jury's determination that Thicke's frisky 2013 hit Blurred Lines did in fact lift copyrighted elements from Marvin Gaye's 1977 song Got to Give It To You, seemed unjustifiable. The tunes just weren't similar enough, they complained. … And yet, in a strictly legal sense, yesterday's verdict set no precedent. US copyright law is fundamentally unchanged; the jury's decision is an interpretation of existing law. If Thicke and Williams challenge the verdict, a court of appeals ruling could possibly refine aspects of that law.

ABC news reports the verdict has the music industry "singing the blues." Thicke, Pharrell and T.I. released their own statement decying the verdict:

While we respect the judicial process, we are extremely disappointed in the ruling made today, which sets a horrible precedent for music and creativity going forward. Blurred Lines was created from the heart and minds of Pharrell, Robin and T.I. and not taken from anyone or anywhere else. We are reviewing the decision, considering our options and you will hear more from us soon about this matter.

Marvin Gaye's daughter described the verdict as a "miracle":

Right now, I feel free. Free from … Pharrell Williams' and Robin Thicke's chains and what they tried to keep on us and the lies that were told

Gaye's family has now set out to block further sales of the 2013 song.

"We'll be asking the court to enter an injunction prohibiting the further sale and distribution of 'Blurred Lines' unless and until we can reach an agreement with those guys on the other side about how future monies that are received will be shared," attorney Richard Busch, who represents the Gaye family, tells Rolling Stone. "We'll be doing that in about a week or so."

Most commentators, however, are displeased. The fear is that the music business will be subject to a new regime of licensing and liability: a worst-case-scenario for a business where everything is, in one way another, a remix of something older.

But wouldn't it be something if the music business was nailed by artists–or their living descendants–using the interpretations of copyright that the music industry bought to protect its own interests?