The “Blurred Lines” Decision: Juke Box Jury

Thanks to yesterday’s “Blurred Lines” verdict, I spent today in the unfamiliar role of Most Optimistic Person on the Internet:

And yet, in a strictly legal sense, yesterday’s verdict set no precedent. US copyright law is fundamentally unchanged; the jury’s decision is an interpretation of existing law.* If Thicke and Williams challenge the verdict, a court of appeals ruling could possibly refine aspects of that law. Still, there seems no cause to fear we’re on the verge of anything as drastic and destructive to creative possibility as the landmark infringement rulings against rappers Biz Markie and NWA in the early 90s, which effectively banned all unlicensed sampling and forever limited how hip-hop could develop.

Well, maybe Least Pessimistic is more accurate. Everything that might be wrong today with the 9th Circuit’s standard for establishing copyright infringement was wrong last week, and one reason I don’t fear an onslaught of new copyright suits, as many of my friends do, is because I suspect that such an onslaught began years ago, and settling such suits is already a routine, if spendy, business practice. (Which, of course, makes it only more puzzling that Thicke and Pharrell risked a jury decision here.)

If infringement claims do spike, most will settle quietly out of court. The good thing about “Blurred Lines” case is that it dragged the knotty question of what it means to infringe a music copyright into the open. The bad thing is that if this decision does change how the music industry functions, we may never even know.

* This sentence has been bugging me all day. Judges interpret the law; juries determine facts. Oof. But I’m proud that I wrote a whole news story about copyright infringement without once mentioning “plagiarism.”

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