Copyright law in LA – Are the lines blurred?

The BBC has reported the verdict of a court case in Los Angeles which resulted in damages of $7.3 million being awarded to the family of Marvin Gaye. The jury found that the song “Blurred Lines” by Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke infringed the copyright of Marvin Gaye’s song Got to Give It Up from 1977.
As a professional working with intellectual property (IP) on a daily basis, and an amateur guitarist and avid music fan I always take an interest in cases such as this. As it happens I am not a particular fan of Marvin Gaye, nor of Williams and Thicke.
This verdict is an interesting one however as it seems to fly in the face of previous precedents in copyright cases. In many previous cases, and I am thinking in particular of disputes within bands, it has been held that royalties for song-writing are split between the composer of the melody, and the author of the lyrics. For these purposes melody is defined as “the aspect of musical composition concerned with the arrangement of single notes to form a satisfying sequence”. You might think of it as the tune you would hum if you were trying to represent a song.
Now this definition is important because there are many parts to a tune you hear on the radio, over and above the melody and the lyrics. Most of these are referred to as the “arrangement”, although they may include rhythm, harmony and percussion. Musicians will also refer to the “groove”, the “vibe” or the “feel”.
In 1997 Puff Daddy’s song “I’ll Be Missing You” sampled the guitar line from “Every Breath You Take” by The Police. Royalties were payable to Sting, who wrote The Police song. This was legally correct but controversial however as the guitar line in question had not been written by Sting, but by Andy Summers, the guitarist for The Police, whose training on classical guitar allowed him to construct this superb arpeggiated guitar part with, according to Summers, no guidance or input from Sting. Under copyright law however Sting is considered the composer of “Every Breath You Take” by virtue of having written the melody and the lyrics. The guitar part by Summers was considered to be a work of “arrangement” only, not a work of composition. (I understand that Sting and Summers did come to an agreement whereby Summers does see some of the income from Sting’s receipts from “I’ll be Missing You”).
So for my money “Blurred Lines” does indeed copy the arrangement of “Got to Give It Up”. It has the same “groove”, i.e. its rhythm and percussion in particular, so the damages award may well be just. It does not however copy the melody or the lyrics. So it is perhaps worth questioning whether copyright law is confusing when applied to modern tunes. Indeed there have been dance tracks in recent years which have been all percussion / groove, with scarcely any melody or lyrics.
So I’ll end this with two questions. Is it fair that all of those damages go to Marvin Gaye’s estate, rather than to the musicians who contributed to the arrangement which was copied? Is copyright law sufficient (and clear) when complex questions of musical arrangements give rise to dispute such as this?

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