One year after securing a $7.4 million verdict in the case over the hit song “Blurred Lines,” attorney Richard Busch still considers himself an outsider in the world of music copyrights.
The verdict, which stunned the music industry, has propelled Busch, a partner at Nashville’s King & Ballow, into the limelight. But he’s also been attacked for his role in the “Blurred Lines” case, which critics warn could stifle creativity by threatening artists who borrow from musical icons of the past.
The song’s writers, Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, who have turned to Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan all-star Kathleen Sullivan on appeal, claim a “cascade of legal errors” led to the verdict.
Busch brushed off the criticism in an interview last week as just another example of his status as an outsider.
“I like to be underestimated,” he said. “For a long time the question was: ‘Who is this guy?’ ”
Not anymore. In the past year, he’s brought copyright infringement cases on behalf of Blind Melon and the songwriters behind “Wanksta,” by the rapper 50 Cent, and “Amazing,” by a British winner of The X Factor, Matt Cardle. This summer Busch had clients on the winning side of two significant appellate decisions in cases challenging elements of Madonna’s “Vogue” and works by rapper Ghostface Killah.
“He’s been involved in some of the most important copyright cases especially for the hip hop industry and pop music for the past 15 years,” said Jay Rosenthal, a partner in Mitchell Silberberg & Knupp’s Washington office and former general counsel of the National Music Publishers’ Association. “When it comes to knowledge and understanding music publishing in particular, he’s no outsider. He knows exactly what he’s doing.”
Howard King of King, Holmes, Paterno & Soriano, the Los Angeles attorney who represents Williams and Thicke, declined to comment.
Busch lives in Nashville, not New York or Los Angeles, where most copyright attorneys work. He doesn’t work for a prominent entertainment firm. And he doesn’t represent record companies, which many other lawyers are loathe to sue.
His career in music copyrights evolved almost by chance. The son of a taxi driver, Busch grew up in a rough neighborhood of Miami. He claims he played baseball and never learned to read music.
After graduating from Loyola University New Orleans School of Law, he clerked for the late Chief Judge John Parker of the Middle District of Louisiana. Soon after he joined King & Ballow, Busch spent five years representing the Tribune Co. in a racketeering case against union advocates following a labor strike at The Daily News in New York.
On his last day in New York, he shared a cab with the husband of a Bridgeport Music Inc. employee. Bridgeport wanted to sue over what it considered rampant sampling in rap music—an area he knew little about.
“I read everything I needed to know,” he said. “I immersed myself in the law library. I sat for days on end reading every single case on every copyright-related issue.”
Busch won big. His landmark 2005 ruling from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit in Bridgeport Music v. Dimension Films held that unlicensed digital sampling of sound recordings was copyright infringement even if the sampling was “de minimis.”
Bridgeport referred him to another client, the recording house for rap artist Eminem. Busch helped land a 2010 victory from the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in a case over royalties owed from digital downloads.
He’s also grown the practice at King & Ballow, which now has up to 10 attorneys dedicated to entertainment.
“This has become a predominant part of our practice,” he said of the firm, historically a labor and employment boutique. The firm opened a second office in Los Angeles this year.
In the “Blurred Lines” case, Busch represented the family of Marvin Gaye, which alleged Williams and Thicke ripped off the 1977 hit song “Got To Give It Up.” The case centered on the copyright over the written musical composition, but the trial turned on what critics called the “feel” or “groove” of the songs. Busch said those critics misunderstood the facts of the case.
One lawyer who has worked with him for years called Busch a “tremendous advocate.”
“He takes on challenging matters and works tirelessly on them, regardless of public perception or the resources arrayed against him,” Daniel Asimow, a partner in Arnold & Porter’s San Francisco office, wrote in an email. Asimov worked with Busch in the Eminem case and has partnered with him in the “Blurred Lines” appeal.
They’re facing off against a formidable legal team led by Quinn Emanuel’s Sullivan, chairwoman of the firm’s appellate practice and former dean of Stanford Law School.
Already, more than 200 musicians including Hans Zimmer and members of Earth, Wind & Fire have filed an amicus brief urging the Ninth Circuit to toss the verdict, which they say “threatens to punish songwriters.”
Busch called those arguments “truly absurd.”
“They have friends in high places in the music business that have an interest in the brand,” he said of his opponents. He won over jurors, he said, by telling the truth. “It’s just me from Day 1. I believed in myself and tried to do the best I can.”
Amanda Bronstad can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org On Twitter: @abronstadnlj.