Last week, Pharrell Williams' and Robin Thicke's 2013 controversial hit "Blurred Lines" was found to be in breach of copyright. It was decided in a Los Angeles court that the track was too similar to Marvin Gaye's 1977 hit "Got to Give It Up", and Williams/Thicke were ordered to pay over $7.3m (£4.8m) in damages to Gaye's family. Interestingly, the BBC reports that the lawsuit had originally been brought against the Gaye family.
In this piece from the New Statesman on Thursday, the writer discusses what was actually found to have been "substantially borrowed without permission", and looks at the way the case was treated in court. A similar discussion can be found on Billboard.
As a summary, the main thrust of Blurred Lines' legal argument was that it's inappropriate to protect a genre, groove or vibe with copyright - these ideas are so wide as to defy ownership by any private entity. Simply put, they claimed they were being sued for taking inspiration.
The other side's focus was remarkably narrower. The Gaye family were limited in their claim to compositional elements in the sheet music for "Got to Give It Up" - as such, the claim was assessed on how these compositional elements compared on paper. The argument leaned on testimony from musicologists, to demonstrate that signature phrases and other musical elements were similar. What's fascinating to note is that the two songs were never played alongside each other in court due to this limitation.
In the end, the impact will invariably be on the consumer - musicians might have to start to be far more careful in how they compose and present their work, which will filter through to the people who listen to it - an international audience. This impact will be positive; artists will be forced to push the limits of originality in their work - or negative; artists will be so creatively stifled that new and interesting work becomes a rarity. As my creative education suggests, "Good artists borrow. Great artists steal".
Thoughts? Is there a "blurred line" (ed: no. just no.) between paying homage, and plagiarism? Will this impact on the way lawyers practice IP in the UK?
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Yes, the two songs sound similar. But you can’t copyright the sound of something. If the implication is that you now can, there’ll be about 20,000 indie bands from the last 30 years getting extremely nervous that they’re about to hear from the Velvet Underground’s lawyer. George Michael will be getting ready to hand over his house to Earth Wind & Fire. A cataclysmic explosion of litigious activity awaits. Because, based on this ruling, everyone will end up owing money to everyone. In the end, the case appears to have hinged on melodic fragments of Blurred Lines that were adjudged to have breached copyright. (It certainly wasn’t the dubious lyrics.) But in this blog post, written before the ruling, Dan Reitz details very nicely why a) no one has done anything wrong, and b) the worrying implications of the ruling should it go against Thicke and Williams.