Judge Rejects New "Blurred Lines" Trial, Trims Damages to $5.3 Million

Robin Thicke Amfar Hong Kong H 2015
AP Images/Invision

The federal judge overseeing the high-profile lawsuit brought by the Marvin Gaye family against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams over the smash hit "Blurred Lines" has handed down some big rulings in the wake of a jury verdict after a trial held last March.

Most importantly, U.S. District Judge John Kronstadt has rejected arguments over expert witness testimony and jury instructions and denied a bid for a new trial.

He's also accepted the Gaye family's contention that record labels including UMG Recordings, Interscope and Star Trak Entertainment should be held liable for their distribution of a song that was found to be a copy of Gaye's "Got to Give It Up." Also ruled a copyright infringer is Clifford "T.I." Harris Jr., the rapper who contributed a verse on the blockbuster "Blurred Lines" song.

The judge has denied the Gayes' bid for an injunction, meaning the song won't be removed from distribution outlets, but has granted a request for an ongoing royalty rate of 50 percent of songwriter and publishing revenues.

On the plus side for Williams in particular, the judge has cut the jury's $7.4 million verdict down to $5.3 million. The $2 million trimming comprises a reduction in actual damages from $4 million to just under $3.2 million and a cutting of the profits that Williams has to turn over from about $1.6 million to about $358,000.

The ruling paves the way for the next phase of the showdown when Thicke and Williams are expected to take the dispute to an appeals court.

Gaye family attorney Richard Busch says he's reviewing and digesting the decision, but is "thrilled with the decision by the Court not only affirming the decision of the jury that Mr. Thicke and Mr. Williams committed copyright infringement, but also the decision holding Mr. Harris and Universal liable as well."

"As far as the reduction in damages, we are reviewing that, and the Court's analysis on that issue, and will be discussing internally our options," he adds.

"While we certainly respect the diligence and care devoted by the court throughout these proceedings, we must agree to disagree on the conclusions," says Howard King, attorney for Williams. "We look forward to exercising our further remedies and ultimately achieving clarity on the difference between inspiration and copyright infringement.

The jury's "Blurred Lines" verdict last March sent shock waves through the music industry and sparked debate over both copyright law and musical expression.

Williams, the song's producer, made the argument that the hit song only lifted the feel of Gaye's '70s hit, but after eight days of trial featuring Thicke explaining away media comments about his inspiration, a jury concluded that "Blurred Lines" was substantially similar to Gaye's.

After the verdict, King focused on a judge's earlier decision at summary judgment that Gaye's copyrights was limited to what was expressed by the lead sheet music and expressed objection over how the jury might have been confused by musicologist Judith Finell's opinion on the similarity of the sound recordings including aspects related to keyboard parts, the bass melody, signature phrases, themes, lyrics and more.

He also argued that edited sound recordings shouldn't have been played at trial. At the last second, the Gayes were allowed to introduce recordings that were supposedly stripped of non-copyrighted elements, but the argument was that they didn't reflect the total concept and feel of “Got to Give It Up" and were prejudicial.

Other concerns related to the admission of Thicke's press statements, which were repudiated by his deposition, the admission of lay opinions from Gaye family members, and various instructions like one over subconscious copying that had been transmitted to a jury of five women and three men.

Ultimately, those arguments couldn't overturn the verdict.

"The Thicke Parties have not shown any evidentiary or instructional error that warrants either a new trial or other relief," the judge writes in an opinion released on Tuesday. "The verdict of the jury was supported by substantial evidence."

In a victory for the other side, though, the judge finds that in trying to calculate 50 percent of publishing revenues for non-willful infringement, the jury appeared to have given an award that wasn't supported by evidence of the song's revenue. The jury also awarded actual damages at 187 percent of Williams' producer royalties, likely from a miscalculation, and the judge says the Gaye family hasn't provided a good rationale explaining it away.

As for the decision to extend the punishment, the record labels put up an interesting argument that to hold them liable despite a jury's exoneration would be a violation of their Seventh Amendment rights to a jury trial. They argued that even if it was legally inconsistent to say they weren't liable for contributory copyright infringement in their role in distributing sound recordings embodying a copyright infringement, it must hold up.

The judge makes short work of this argument by taking on some responsibility for the error. He says his jury instructions hadn't "adequately informed the jury that a person may be liable for distribution of an infringing work, as opposed to an unauthorized work of the author."

A footnote also explains their resulting penalty. T.I. and the record labels will share in the $3.2 million actual damages tab (possible indemnification notwithstanding), but won't have to pay for lost profits.

Everything else about today's ruling can be seen by reviewing the judge's 56-page opinion, which we've posted here.