Let’s Get it On! Robin Thicke’s Copyright Suit Against Marvin Gaye’s Heirs Blurs Lines Between Offense and Defense
“Blurs lines…” See what I did there?
I write this blog under the willful delusion that “normal” people – you know, ones who spend their time focused on things other than legal this and that – read it. With that perspective, I attempt to educate my readers about the workings of the legal system, and in particular, the area of intellectual property law, without getting bogged down in legal minutia. Well, it’s not often I get to give you normal people something you REALLY care about…like Pharrell, Robin Thicke and the great Marvin Gaye. So let’s make the best of it and use this situation to bore you with a lesson on declaratory judgment.
To watch gossip TV this week, you would gather that Robin Thicke, in response to being accused in the blog-o-sphere of ripping off Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” (or Funkadelic’s “Sexy Ways” depending on who’s doing the accusing) has decided to go on the offensive by suing Gaye’s heirs and Funkadelic’s former label. But this is not exactly the case. Thicke is playing defense here in an effort to head off already-threatened litigation and to ensure he gets to do so in the court of his choosing.
The process is called declaratory judgment. Normally, a plaintiff in a civil lawsuit is the one who believes he or she has been wronged. They sue for damages or an injunction preventing certain actions by the defendant. In declaratory judgment, however, the plaintiff is simply asking a judge to declare the legal status of certain facts. Of course, you have to have a legitimate claim for the court to review. You can’t just walk in and ask a judge for an “advisory opinion” on a hypothetical situation. But when you are a potential defendant and you need to clarify the legal situation in order to make informed decisions about your business going forward, you may be able to seek declaratory judgment from the court.
Declaratory judgment is available when there is a bona fide “case or controversy” and you have standing with the court to ask for a resolution to the case or controversy. In this case, Marvin Gaye’s heirs and record label Bridgeport Music (owner of the rights to “Sexy Ways”) have been accusing Thicke, Pharrell and T.I. of copyright infringement but have not filed suit. Settlement negotiations have been going on in private. That threat gives Thicke et al the necessary case or controversy to ask for declaratory judgment. In order to bring the dispute to a close, and presumably to do so in a court of his choosing, Thicke filed the declaratory judgment action asking the court to rule that “Blurred Lines” does not infringe the copyright of “Got to Give it Up” or “Sexy Ways.”
Some say it makes Thicke look guilty and appear to be the bad guy. I say it’s a very good way to tell potential plaintiffs who want to cash in on the song’s success “we’re not gonna sit around and negotiate with you.” Smart move if you ask me.Tweet