The Ninth Circuit Decides the ‘Blurred Lines’ Copyright Case on Procedural Grounds

Takeaway: If the district court denies your motion for summary judgment, ask it to allow you to appeal the decision right away If the case goes to trial, move for a judgment as a matter of law immediately after the plaintiff has presented its case in chief and then renew the motion at the end of the trial.

Last week, after years of litigation, the Ninth Circuit affirmed the jury’s verdict that Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke’s 2013 hit, “Blurred Lines,” infringed the copyrights owned by Marvin Gaye from his iconic 1977 hit, “Got to Give It Up.”

But, the Ninth Circuit affirmed largely on procedural grounds because the Thicke defendants had failed to move for a judgment as a matter of law after the Gaye plaintiffs’ case in chief. As a result, they were not permitted to argue that judgment was wrong under the more liberal sufficiency of the evidence standard. The appeal was gravely limited to arguing only that certain jury instructions and expert testimony warranted a new trial, which entails a more deferential standard of review. Judge Jacqueline Nguyen dissented because she believed the majority was wrong not to review the substance of the issues by comparing the songs.

Equally important, the Ninth Circuit held that a 2011 Supreme Court decision bars appellate courts from reviewing a denial of summary judgment at the end of a case, after a jury verdict.

The decision upheld the $5.3 Million jury award for the Gaye plaintiffs, but offers very little by way of clarifying copyright law.