By Maddie Orton
The line between inspiration and copyright infringement was further blurred earlier this month, when a jury found that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams violated copyright laws with their hit “Blurred Lines.” It was deemed too similar to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up.”
There’s certainly precedent for the case. Think George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” and The Chiffons’ “He’s so Fine,” or Sam Smith’s “Stay with Me” and Tom Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” But this case is a little different.
“It’s very rare that these cases get to a jury in the first place,” says entertainment lawyer Gary Laurie. Laurie teaches entertainment law at Montclair State University and New Jersey City University. He says these cases are normally settled out of court.
“Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams particularly made some comments in early interviews how they were either inspired by Marvin Gaye or that they tried to base a song around a Marvin Gaye song,” says Laurie.
Laurie says that called attention to the correlation, so the “Blurred Lines” composers tried to prevent future legal battles.
“They brought what’s called a declaratory action to get a judge to say that they were not infringing,” Laurie explains. “They did [it preemptively],” he said. “And it’s turned out to backfire on them.”
It backfired to the tune of a nearly $7.4 million award to the Gaye family.
Unlike the cases of “My Sweet Lord” and “Stay with Me,” though, the copyright claim wasn’t so clear-cut. It’s not based on lifting an exact rhythm or an exact melody. It’s about various elements that contribute to the overall feel of the song. Music Producer Charles Farrar says that’s why he thinks the jury got it wrong.
“When you listen to the two songs you can see that one was like an homage to the other,” says Farrar, “but it doesn’t mean that it had to be a copyright.”
Many artists, including Pharrell Williams, spoke out against the verdict, warning of its potential impact on the industry. Williams told the Financial Times: “If we lose our freedom to be inspired we’re going to look up one day and the entertainment industry as we know it will be frozen in litigation.”
What will the long-term impact of the case be for the industry?
“It’s a little too early to tell,” says Laurie. “It could be a one-off exception, or we could now see a trend towards more copyright infringement cases going to trial.” Laurie’s concerned about the verdict’s impact on the creative process and First Amendment rights.
It’s a win for the Gaye family, however, who issued a statement saying: “…We as the caretakers of such treasures, have an obligation to be vigilant about preserving the integrity of the music so that future generations understand its origins and feel its effect as the artist intended, and to assure that it retains its value.”
Farrar sees songs like “Blurred Lines” as a way of introducing new audiences to the artists who inspired such tracks. In fact, Billboard reported sales of Marvin Gaye’s Number 1’s album were up 246 percent after the trial.
“There’re no new chords under the sun, there’s no new rhythms under the sun,” says Farrar. “Everything has been done before, but how are you going to do it a little differently, and how are you going to do it with your own spin on it to make it your piece of art?”
Last week, the Gaye family filed an injunction to cease distribution, performances and sales of “Blurred Lines” until compensation and crediting is worked out.