In March 2015, a jury awarded Marvin Gaye’s estate nearly $7.4 million, finding that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams infringed on Gaye's 1977 song, “Got to Give It Up,” with their own 2013 hit, “Blurred Lines.” The highly publicized federal copyright lawsuit has raised concerns about the ramifications of this outcome for the legal protection of music and the future of artistic creativity. The question underlying this case, as in much of federal copyright litigation, involves negotiating the putative similarities and differences between expressive works. Although the court system has developed methods designed to assist triers of fact in such legal analysis, the unpredictable outcomes of these cases illuminate the problematics of this task. Triers of fact may hear testimony from expert witnesses, whose specialized knowledge, skill, and experience is intended to inform the decision-making process. The results of such testimony, however, are not only insistently variable, but they also reflect unsettled debates over how, and by whom, musical identity can best be defined. Given this situation, how should we understand the historical and contemporary role of the musical expert witness in American music copyright litigation?
Drawing on research methods from musicological and legal scholarship, the present dissertation examines extant court records and judicial opinions of prominent cases chronologically from their origins in the mid-nineteenth century through to recently-decided lawsuits. In situating the role of the musical expert in the context of the legal similarity inquiry and considering their contributions to it, the study reveals the essential role that experts have historically played. It then recasts contemporary problems with case outcomes as a result of the similarity inquiry itself and looks to expert testimony as one potential area of reform.
Such study of musical expertise sheds light on the courtroom as a forum for musical experts, particularly contemporary musicologists, and elucidates their understudied, yet often significant, relationship to the American judicial system. It is through a greater understanding of this role that musicologists should be better equipped to assist courts in resolving the blurred lines that separate, and bind together, so many works of music.