"Blurred Lines" of Copyright in Music

Experts Discuss Music Infringement and the Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams Copyright Trial at Event Sponsored by Columbia Law School's Kernochan Center and Center for the Study of Law and Culture

New York, April 15, 2015—Technology is changing the way music is made, said  Judith Finell, who served as an expert witness on behalf of the estate of Marvin Gaye in litigation over the 2013 hit “Blurred Lines,” at an event co-sponsored by Columbia Law School’s Kernochan Center for Law, Media and the Arts and the Center for the Study of Law and Culture.

As a musicologist, Finell studies the theory and physical nature of sound. She was joined at the lunchtime talk by Columbia Law School alumnus and lecturer Robert W. Clarida ’93, an intellectual property attorney with Reitler Kailas & Rosenblatt and author of the treatise Copyright Law Deskbook.  Clarida, who has a Ph.D. in music, directed his comments toward the jury instructions and applicable law in the “Blurred Lines” case, in which the Gaye estate claimed the song by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams infringed Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up.” The jury awarded the Gaye estate $7.4 million after a trial.
Finell and Clarida agreed that some of the press coverage of the verdict reflected a misunderstanding of the issues in the case, and that determining whether a work infringes is ultimately a question for jurors who hear all the evidence at trial.
Finell noted that the jury had to compare the two songs in very different formats. Gaye’s song was submitted to the U.S. Copyright Office on paper as a so-called “lead sheet,” as required at the time, while the copyright deposit for “Blurred Lines” was a sound recording.
The songwriting process has changed in recent decades, Finnell said, pointing out that many artists now assemble pre-existing works into new songs or compress songs into “mash-ups.”
“Copyright law is having trouble adjusting to that norm,” she said.
Columbia Law School Professor Kendall Thomas, director of the Center for the Study of Law and Culture, and Kernochan Center Executive Director June M. Besek each provided introductory remarks at the event, which featured clips from songs that have been the subject of high-profile copyright battles over the years, including Madonna’s “Holiday,” the Beastie Boys’ “Girls,” and Michael Bolton’s “Love Is a Wonderful Thing.”