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Friday, November 21, 2014

Teaching Copyright Law - Blurred Lines

"Blurred Lines," the summer hit of 2013, is the subject of a copyright dispute. The estate of Marvin Gaye claims that the composers of the hit song (Pharrel Williams, Robin Thicke, and T.I.) appropriated the song from the Gaye hit, "Got to Give it Up." Williams et all filed a declaratory judgment action, and moved to dismiss the Gaye family's counterclaims alleging copyright infringement. Last month, Judge John A. Kronstadt denied a motion to dismiss. The order interests me for two reasons. Here I focus on the first.

I used the "Blurred Lines" case last year as the basis for a memo assignment on substantial similarity in my copyright class. For those of you who don't think often about copyright law, proving infringement requires evidence of copying, which is usually inferred from 1) access to the original work and 2) substantial similarity between the original and the alleged copy. In this case, Alan Thicke said in multiple interviews that he and Pharell meant to write an homage to the Gaye song, so I let the students assume access. I tasked the students with summarizing the state of the law in the Ninth Circuit on protectable elements of musical composition, i.e., which elements in a song can be copied without triggering liability, and which elements cannot. I then asked them to opine on a likely outcome in the case. At the time, the report from a musicologist hired by the Gaye family had leaked via Hollywood reporter. There was no competing report from the Williams camp available at the time, so I invited a musicologist from across campus, Brian Gaber, to walk the students through differences in the two works of music as if he were advising Williams and his co-writers about the similiarity of the musical elements.

The students were nervous about digging into the similarities and differences in the musical composition (what the song would look like if you wrote it up in standard notation) and the sound recording (what the song sounds like). Some students expressed concern that classmates who knew something about music would perform better on the assignment than those who knew little or nothing. But I invited them to think of the assignment as an opportunity to learn about substantial similiarity in a musical context, and to develop the ability to teach themselves about a complex issue in the course of preparing for a case. This is a challenge that will face lawyers providing legal advice in any substantial similarity case. Handling substantial similiarity requires familiarizing oneself with the norms of an industry, and how common elements or scènes à faire (unprotectable stock elements) manifest in a given genre.

Now expert reports are available on both sides, at least if you access to PACER. I commend the case to you as a fun one, if you want to help your students dig deeply into substantial similarity in copyright law as it manifests in musical composition

Posted by Jake Linford on November 21, 2014 at 01:00 PM | Permalink


Creative and productive teaching -- kudos!

Posted by: Anon | Nov 22, 2014 10:46:15 AM

As a young, practicing IP attorney, this assignment is the type of assignment I wish I had in my IP and/or copyright law school classes. Please keep teaching this way. Your students will thank you in the long run.

Posted by: ipesq. | Nov 21, 2014 2:00:59 PM

Thanks, Adam! It was a lot of work, but well worth it, at least from my perspective. I think the students extracted good value from it after an initial round of hand-wringing.

Posted by: Jake Linford | Nov 21, 2014 1:40:28 PM


This is a model of how to teach beyond the casebook. Spending the time necessary to make use of the tremendous "expert" resources on offer across campus is well worth it, and I personally do too little of it. Bravo.


Posted by: Adam | Nov 21, 2014 1:08:53 PM

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