Richard Busch, described as “a street fighter” by one client, doesn’t mind being an outsider in the music world as long as he’s connecting with juries and winning important cases.
Ask Richard S. Busch, the lawyer who earlier this monthwon a nearly $7.4 million copyright suit against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, why he is so successful, and he will mention the 1997 film “The Devil’s Advocate,” in which Al Pacino plays Satan posing as a master lawyer.
In one scene, a modestly dressed Pacino shares a secret with his stylish and polished protégé, played by Keanu Reeves. “I’m a surprise,” Pacino tells him. “They don’t see me coming.”
“I think that’s me,” Busch, a partner in the firm King & Ballow in Nashville, said the other day with a laugh. “I’m sure Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke said, ‘Who’s this guy from Nashville, Tennessee?’ They didn’t see me coming.”
Music litigator Richard S. Busch
Home and family: Lives outside Nashville with his wife and three children
Education: Graduated from Loyola University New Orleans College of Law
Quote: “I only take on cases that I believe I can win.”
The New York Times
Busch is not a surprise any longer. In one of the most important copyright cases in the music industry in years, he triumphed over Williams and Thicke and their elite Los Angeles law firm, convincing a federal jury that the songwriters’ 2013 hit “Blurred Lines” had too closely copied Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up.”
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In truth, the lawyers representing the two musicians knew exactly who Busch was. In the small world of high-powered entertainment lawyers, Busch has carved out a niche as a crusading outsider, winning cases that have had wide-ranging repercussions for the music industry.
Among them are Bridgeport Music v. Dimension Films, which established that even the tiniest sample — a piece of one song used in another — needs legal permission, and F.B.T. Productions v. Aftermath Records, which led to a wave of litigation over how royalties are paid in digital music.
Compared to the polished style of many of the Hollywood litigators he has faced in court, Busch is a bit rough around the edges. One of his former clients, Joel Martin of F.B.T. Productions, a company connected to Eminem, proudly calls Busch “a street fighter.” He is known for extensive preparation and an aggressive style in depositions. At the “Blurred Lines” trial, he spoke so intensely that his voice cracked, and the judge, John A. Kronstadt, repeatedly told him to slow down.
By comparison, Busch’s opponent in the case, Howard E. King of the firm King, Holmes, Paterno & Berliner, is a consummate industry insider, with an affable and sometimes sarcastic approach. In a sign of how familiar he was in the courtroom, Kronshtadt at one point joked that King need not worry about wearing a jacket the next morning because the jurors would not be able to see him as they entered through a side door. Janis Gaye, the former wife of Marvin Gaye, said Busch’s distance from the center of the industry was one of the reasons that she and her children had hired him.
“He’s not one of the Hollywood mover-and-shaker guys who shows up at every party and says, ‘Hey, here’s my business card,’ ” Gaye said. “I’ve never met anyone like Richard Busch, and that’s fine with me.”
As Busch sees it, that works to his benefit.
“By being on the outside,” he said, “everyone who hires me knows that they get 100 percent of my loyalty.” Many top entertainment lawyers see themselves primarily as dealmakers, whose connections to both artists and the studios and record labels that hire them are often viewed more as synergy than as conflicts by those involved. And even the tough-minded litigators among the core firms seldom push against the status quo quite as aggressively as someone like Busch.
“Talent does not want to sue the record companies, for fear of being blackballed,” said the Los Angeles lawyer Neville L. Johnson, who represents actors and musicians. “You can’t sue the hand that feeds you.”
Busch said that an important part of his courtroom strategy is connecting with the jury. That may have been an advantage in the “Blurred Lines” case. He pounced on the changing accounts by Thicke and Williams of how the song had been written as undermining their credibility.
“You have to be the truth teller,” he said in an interview. “Some lawyers I have gone up against are perhaps more technically proficient, but I feel like I’ve done a very good job of connecting with the jury and being sincere in everything that I do.”
Other lawyers describe Busch with words like bully — not always an insult in the legal field — and complain he is so aggressive in fighting for his clients that he does not care what havoc is created along the way. But they afford him grudging respect. The nearly $7.4 million in the “Blurred Lines” case, a combination of damages and a share of the profits Williams and Thicke received, is one of the largest awards for a case of its type, legal specialists said.
“He’s a tough competitor,” said David M. Given of the firm Phillips, Erlewine, Given & Carlin in San Francisco. “But I think it’s fair to say that his outside status, if you want to call it that, has empowered him to take on institutions and players in the music business that others wouldn’t.”
King declined to comment about Busch but said he expected to file a variety of post-trial motions to fight the decision.
Busch joined King & Ballow in 1991 after law school and was eventually connected with Bridgeport Music. It controlled music by funk acts like Parliament-Funkadelic and the Ohio Players that was being widely sampled in rap songs without permission, and wanted to pursue litigation, Busch said.
He filed suit against hundreds of opponents, with most cases resulting in settlements. One that went to trial, against the studio Dimension Films, resulted in a landmark appeals-court ruling in 2005 that warned, “Get a license or do not sample.”
Just as that case did, the “Blurred Lines” verdict is now stoking concerns among advocates for artists that it could have hurt creativity.
“Both cases have lowered the threshold of what counts as copyright infringement,” said Kembrew McLeod, a professor of communications at the University of Iowa. “The ‘Blurred Lines’ verdict is going to make songwriters paranoid about musical appropriation that could result in a lawsuit.”
Information in this article, originally published March 22, 2015, was corrected March 24 to clarify that it was Busch who joined King & Balow in 1991.