The “Blurred Lines” trial, which ended Tuesday with a copyright ruling from a federal jury in Los Angeles, involved big stars (Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke), big money ($7.3 million) and big weirdness (during a deposition, Thicke apologized for calling an attorney “a dick”). But it may not lead to big copycats. When a jury in 1994 found Michael Bolton’s hit “Love Is a Wonderful Thing” infringed on an old Isley Brothers song, many in the music business predicted a barrage of similar copyright-infringement suits. It didn’t happen.
“Most of these cases don’t go to trial,” Eve Wagner, who successfully represented Michael Jackson against copyright-infringement suits in the Nineties, tells Rolling Stone. “I don’t think it’s going to turn the industry on its head.”
Attorneys who’ve been involved in similar cases say the “Blurred Lines” ruling could have five major implications — none of which involve the death of the music business:
1. Two words: more settlements. Rather than defend his 2014 hit “Stay With Me” in a brutal, Thicke-and-Pharrell-like trial, Sam Smith settled with Tom Petty over the similarities to “I Won’t Back Down.” (Smith’s people simply added Petty and co-writer Jeff Lynne to the songwriting credits, which means they receive a share of the lucrative royalty payments forever.) After the “Blurred Lines” ruling, Wagner says, “Defendants may be more concerned about trying to settle the case than they were in the past.”
2. The ruling might not set a major legal precedent. In future copyright-infringement cases, a songwriter accused of plagiarism is unlikely to go to court and testify that he was “high on Vicodin” while writing the song in question — as Thicke did last year. (Also, Thicke had said publicly that Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” had influenced him, then contradicted that story later in court.) “We’re all human beings. Jurors are no different,” says John McNicholas, a Los Angeles attorney who represented the Isleys in the Bolton case. “Credibility is huge.”
3. Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry can’t go back and sue everybody for millions. There’s a three-year statute of limitations to recover full damages from a song, a la the $7.3 million for “Blurred Lines.” After that, rights-holders can sue for up to $150,000 in statutory damages per infringement, but attorneys’ fees could make it cost-prohibitive. “That’s not exciting, to go all the way through a jury trial for $150,000,” Wagner says.
4. More “Blurred Lines” copies will almost certainly be sold. The Gayes’ attorney has said he’ll seek an injunction to prevent Universal Music from selling the song. “That’s theoretically possible,” says attorney Kenneth Sidle, who has defended Dolly Parton and John Fogerty from copyright-infringement suits. “But normally, you wouldn’t want to stop [the label] from making money, because [the Gayes] would get their share of it.”
5. This isn’t over. Attorneys for Thicke and Williams have said they plan to appeal. And they may have grounds, legal experts say: According to the judge’s “Blurred Lines” trial instructions, the jury had to compare songs purely based on sheet music. Attorneys for Thicke and Williams could argue there are more factors determining the differences between songs than notes on a page.