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The “Blurred Lines” verdict will forever remain a landmark decision for the music industry — one that shows it’s possible for hit songwriters to get in copyright trouble for infringing on prior work. But the dispute won’t also become a lesson that star litigants be careful in what they tell the media afterwards. On Friday, in what’s best described as a coda to the landmark case, a California federal judge rejects a renewed bid for attorney fees from Marvin Gaye’s family.
Back in 2015, Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke and a song publisher were ordered to pay nearly $5 million for infringing the copyright to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” The verdict was blessed by a judge and then withstood appeal. But the Gaye family didn’t get everything they wanted. Represented by attorney Richard Busch, the Gayes also pushed for about $3.5 million in attorney fees and costs.
After the final judgment was rendered, the plaintiffs noticed an interview that Williams gave to GQ Magazine. The hit maker discussed his behind-the-scenes production process and how when he finds something he likes, he “reverse engineers” the feeling he gets from listening to that music. I did that in ‘Blurred Lines’ and got myself in trouble,” he told Rick Rubin during the interview.
The plaintiffs brought it to the attention of U.S. District Court Judge John Kronstadt. They claimed it showed a fraud on the court and evidence of perjury.
In his latest ruling, Kronstadt disagrees.
“The statements by Williams during the November 2019 Interview were cryptic and amenable to multiple interpretations,” writes the judge. “For example, it is unclear what Williams meant by ‘reverse-engineer[ing].’ Read in context, Williams statement about ‘reverse-engineering’ could be interpreted as a process in which he remembers his feelings when listening to particular music, and then attempts to recreate those feelings in his own works. This is not inconsistent with his deposition testimony, in which he claimed that he realized after creating ‘Blurred Lines’ that the feeling he tried to capture in the song, was one that he associated with Marvin Gaye.”
Regardless, the judge doesn’t think Williams’ mental state when he entered the studio to do “Blurred Lines” was as big a factor in how the case played out as hyped.
“Even if Thicke and Williams each testified falsely about his state of mind when ‘Blurred Lines’ was created, the question of willfulness was not a ‘central issue in the case,'” states the opinion at a latter point. ” Although the parties — in framing their arguments to the jury — addressed whether the conduct by Thicke and Williams was willful, this element of a claim of infringement goes primarily to whether enhanced statutory damages and attorney’s fees should be awarded. For a copyright infringement claim, infringement, not willfulness, is plainly the central issue. Moreover, in this action, the Gaye Parties elected to seek actual not statutory damages. This also results in less significance on the issue of willfulness.”
Kronstadt also says that the Gayes took their shots at trial at cross-examining Williams.
“Although the Gaye Parties claim that the November 2019 Interview constitutes new evidence of perjury that warrants reopening the judgment, the Gaye Parties do not — and cannot — argue that they did not hold the view at the time of the trial, i.e., that Thicke and Williams were not testifying honestly.”
For these reasons, and others, the judge rejects the motion and will not grant further relief. Here’s the full decision:
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