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Tuesday, March 17, 2015

The Implications of the "Blurred Lines" Verdict for Weird Al Yankovic

The major intellectual property story of the spring has been a lawsuit by Marvin Gaye's estate against Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke. A jury recently held that Thicke and Williams' song, "Blurred Lines," infringed on the copyright for Gaye's song, "Got to Give It Up." I have not been following the litigation very closely, and I do not have much analysis of my own to add regarding the litigation itself, but you can find additional analysis and criticism of the case and verdict here, here, here, here, and here.

While I am not a big fan of Pharell Williams or Robin Thicke, I am far more interested in the work of Weird Al Yankovic. Weird Al wrote an excellent parody of Williams' and Thicke's song, entitled "Word Crimes." Here it is:

While Weird Al made sure to get permission from Thicke and Williams to use their song as a basis for his parody, would Thicke and Williams' recent loss spell trouble for Weird Al?

Sherwin Siy thinks that Weird Al could potentially be affected by the "Blurred Lines" litigation. While the Gaye estate did not sue Weird Al in time to recover damages for copyright infringement, the estate may still be able to sue Weird Al to recover a share of his profits from the song. As Siy notes:

While awards of damages for copyright infringement are joint and several, awards of the infringers’ profits are only several. This means basically that each infringer is responsible for their own profits, and not anyone else. You can see how this works: though the Gaye estate was damaged a certain amount by everyone (here, let’s say, Pharrell, Thicke, and Yankovic) acting in concert, each of those three different people made a different amount of profit, separate attributable in part to their use of the song. 
So while it’s too late for the Gaye estate to recover damages from Weird Al (or, to be more accurate, they already have, in a way), they could still try to go after him for his profits on “Word Crimes,” to the extent that those profits can be attributed to his taking from “Got to Give It Up.” And giving Al Yankovic a reason to worry is just one more reason to be upset with this verdict.
So even though Weird Al was not involved in the original infringement suit, he may still face difficulties if the Gaye estate seeks to capitalize on its recent victory. But if that victory ends up getting appealed, perhaps Weird Al will be free to continue marketing his parody without disruption.

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