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Celebrity Legacies: Blurred Lines Surround Marvin Gaye Estate

There’s nothing like a hit song to keep heirs dancing down the road to the bank — even when that song wasn’t written, composed, or sung by the celebrity singer who died.

The heirs of Marvin Gaye hit it big with a judgment against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for copyright infringement based on their chart-topping song Blurred Lines … but will the victory stand up on appeal? And what exactly does this mean for the Marvin Gaye Estate?

This is installment #13 of our Estate Planning Lessons From The Stars series, which is based on the Celebrity Legacies TV show for which we provide commentary as the estate legal experts. See other articles in the series here.

Marvin Gaye was shot and killed by his own father in 1984, at only 44 years of age. He left behind a golden musical legacy as the Prince of Soul, featuring three #1 songs in three separate decades.

Gaye’s father was sentenced to only six months in jail, with a suspended sentence, for the crime. Many decried this as too lenient, but others — including one of Gaye’s own sisters — felt this was more of a suicide than murder. The tragedy happened after Marvin Gaye gave the gun to his father and provoked him before the fatal shot. Gaye battled depression and drug-addiction for years before his death.

Because of Gaye’s lavish spending and failure to pay taxes, his estate was buried in a mountain of debt — to the tune of more than nine million dollars. Without a will, and a large host of creditors, the fate of Marvin Gaye’s financial legacy was left to a court-appointed bankruptcy attorney to try to salvage.

And salvage it, he did. With savvy marketing of Gaye’s song royalties, image rights, and even the official rights to produce his life story, the executor of the Marvin Gaye estate paid off the debts and accumulated several million dollars worth of assets. Gaye’s three children, as the heirs under intestate law, reaped the benefits.

But Marvin Gaye’s children did not rest on their laurels. Upset with how much the hit song Blurred Lines, by Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, mirrored their father’s 1977 song Got To Give It Up, the Gaye heirs battled the famous singers to trial in a copyright lawsuit. In March of 2015, the jury handed down a $7.4 million verdict against Thicke and Williams but let rapper T.I. — also featured on the song — off the hook.

The jury found that Blurred Lines improperly infringed upon the Marvin Gaye classic, causing four million dollars in copyright damages. Based on the $16 million in profits earned from the song, the jury verdict also included another $3.4 million against Williams and Thicke from their personal share of the profits.

The attorney for the pair promised to explore every legal remedy available to challenge the verdict — which suggests an appeal is imminent. The attorneys for the Marvin Gaye family feel confident that the judgment will survive an appeal because they convinced the jury that the song infringed on the copyright, despite the fact the judge did not allow them to play then entire Got To Give It Up song for the jury.

Specifically, Gaye’s children only inherited the sheet music composition — meaning the songwriting portion of the rights — not the performance rights. These rights were directly passed to them through federal law, while the performance rights remain under the control of the executor of the Marvin Gaye estate, whom did not join in the lawsuit. Without the performance rights under their control, the heirs were only permitted to proceed based on the written sheet music, bolstered by testimony from music industry experts.

Even though the Gaye family’s legal team felt hamstrung by this legal ruling before trial started, they still convinced the jury to go their way. This means that the Marvin Gaye heirs won because the jury felt, as a factual matter, one song impermissibly copied the other.

Appeals rarely succeed after juries resolve factual disputes, such as this one. Instead they usually require a legal error to trigger a reversal or new trial. The lawyers for Thicke and Williams will have a tough time showing this type of error, considering the judge sided with them as to the important preliminary legal battle before trial began.

In the end, the Marvin Gaye heirs were lucky. If they had full control over all of their late father’s rights, then they could have played recordings of Marvin Gaye signing the full song and let the jury hear the similarities compared to the Thicke/Pharrell-performed song.

Plus, the heirs may have been able to receive some of the performance profits that Thicke and Pharrell earned from concert tours and other performances. Considering the reported $11 million earned in touring income generated by Blurred Lines, this would have made the Gaye heirs’ victory even bigger.

It’s too bad that Marvin Gaye never took the time to make out even a basic will to protect the loved ones he left behind. If he had, he could have hand-selected one or more executors that he trusted to control his rights and his legacy, to benefit his heirs. Then his loved ones could have pursued the full claim through trial, not simply the limited claimed based on songwriting but not performance rights.

Of course, it would be hard for his children to complain too much about this, considering that those in charge of Marvin Gaye’s estate engineered the massive financial turn-around even before this recent court victory. But there is no doubt that good luck played a large role in that and the jury verdict as well. The heirs’ financial windfalls certainly were not helped along by Marvin Gaye’s decision to avoid preparing a will, trust, or other estate planning documents.

Celebrity Legacies is a documentary series airing on the Reelz cable channel featuring Danielle and Andy Mayoras and other experts. The popular TV show explores the lives, legacies, and estates of a different celebrity each episode. Click here for upcoming show times.

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