Now the Lines Really are ‘Blurred’ in the World of Music Copyright

March 25, 2015

When Robin Thicke sang the words “I hate these blurred lines” he probably wasn’t talking about copyrights. Two weeks ago a jury awarded the family of Marvin Gaye almost $7.4 million dollars when it found that Thicke and co-writer Pharrell Williams copied elements from Gaye’s song “Got to Give It Up.” The jury found that T.I (another writer on the song) and the music label did not infringe on the copyright. In the case the jury was instructed to “compare “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up” only on the basis of their “sheet music” versions — meaning their fundamental chords, melodies and lyrics, and not the sounds of their commercial recordings.” As a side note, I am curious as to whether people on the jury actually knew how to read sheet music, or if there was an expert in the case who taught them how to read sheet music. Thicke and Williams have both said publically that they look up to Gaye and have been inspired by him but that they did not copy him. One question that has been asked in the music industry since the suit was filed against the Gaye family (yes, Thicke and company filed a preemptive suit against the Gaye family to claim that they did not infringe) in August of 2013 is what is the line between paying homage to a song or artist and plagiarism?
This case is different from other copyright infringement cases in that it doesn’t involve sampling (where one artist takes a portion of one sound recording and uses it in a different song).

Instead, the question was whether Blurred Lines copied the musical composition, or sheet music, of Gaye’s song.

When making its decision the jury was supposed to rely only on the sheet music of the songs, not by things that were later added to the songs in the music studio. Listening to the songs one after another, some similarities can be heard; they both have fun, party-like atmospheres in the background and use some of the same percussion elements (who knew something as simple as a cowbell would cause such a stir). Additionally the bass lines are similar, but bass lines are also similar to the Funk music genre as a whole, which is something that Thicke tried to illustrate by playing songs similar to both on a keyboard during the trial.
What is interesting here, however, is that these similarities are the elements that the judge told the jury not to consider. The judge told the jury not to consider these elements because they were not covered by the copyright. When you compare the basic elements of the songs, like the melodies and lyrics, there is no similarity. Thicke’s song is in a major key, while Gaye’s song is in a minor key.

One writer said that this verdict “casts a huge shadow over musical creativity and takes what should be familiar elements of a genre, available to all, and privatizes them.”

This story is far from over, with lawyers from both sides vowing to continue the fight. This week, the lawyer for the Gaye family “filed a post-trial motion to stop the sales of the Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and T.I. song so they could negotiate future revenue shares.” He also filed a motion to add T.I and the record label back on to the verdict. This means that, for now, the Gaye family wants the sale of the song to stop until there can be an agreement reached between the parties as to writing credits for Gaye on the song, and a share of the song’s revenues for the family. The tricky part in this negotiation is that the copyright infringement award by the jury only covers the composition, and not the actual recording. This means that the lawyer for the Gaye’s will have to show that they are “suffering ‘irreparable harm’” by the song continuing to be sold. For the other side, the lawyer of the artists filed a motion to dismiss the Gaye’s filings. The lawyer claims that asking the judge to add the music label and T.I. to the verdict would in effect overturn the jury’s verdict. Since this case is still ongoing the complete effect of the jury verdict and subsequent litigation is yet to be seen. However, it is probably safe to say that music artists will think twice, now, before they let another artist be their muse.