After months (nay, years) of controversy swirling around “Blurred Lines,” the 2013 hit song by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, a jury decided yesterday that the song constitutes copyright infringement, and awarded a restitution of nearly $7.4 million to the estate of Marvin Gaye, according to Billboard.
The family of the late R&B singer has long claimed that “Blurred Lines” is effectively a rip-off of Gaye’s 1977 song “Got To Give It Up.” In anticipation of the upcoming legal trouble, Thicke and Williams proactively filed suit in August 2013 against the Marvin Gaye estate, asking the courts to rule that “Blurred Lines” did not copy “Got To Give It Up”—a bid that the courts ultimately denied.
The jury deliberated for eight days before determining that the songs were similar enough to constitute infringement, but at least refrained from assessing statutory damages against Thicke and Williams upon finding that the infringement was not intentional. Rapper T.I. (née Clifford Harris, Jr.) also has writing credit on “Blurred Lines,” but the jury did not find him liable for infringement for his part of the song. The judgment of $7.4 million is far less than lawyers for the Marvin Gaye family were asking for—they wanted $25 million, and claimed the family was owed as much as $40 million—but it still represents a record high figure for repayment in copyright lawsuits.
Obviously unhappy with the jury decision, Williams, Thicke and T.I. issued a joint statement shortly afterward: “While we respect the judicial process, we are extremely disappointed in the ruling made today, which sets a horrible precedent for music and creativity going forward. Pharrell created ‘Blurred Lines’ from his heart, mind and soul and the song was not taken from anyone or anywhere else. We are reviewing the decision, considering our options and you will hear more from us soon about this matter.”
From the beginning of the controversy, Pharrell (who wrote the lion’s share of the song) has openly said that the 2013 hit song was inspired by Marvin Gaye written in the same style and “feel” of “Got To Give It Up,” but never stole from the song in the process. During the trial, Howard King (attorney for the defendants) said, “No one owns a style or groove.” Williams himself testified during the trial that while he deeply admired Marvin Gaye, “The last thing you want to do as a creator is take something of someone else’s when you love him.”
The jury decision does not signal the end of the headaches for Williams and Thicke. Richard Busch, attorney for the Gaye family, plans to file an injunction calling for the halt of all sales of “Blurred Lines” until an agreement can be reached regarding future revenues for the song between the feuding parties, as Rolling Stone reports.
Although the immediate question in this lawsuit is about who has the rights to make money from the music in “Blurred Lines,” the larger, more troubling question is what impact it will have on songwriting in general. Music copyright infringement claims are quite common, but few actually make it to court, and fewer still result in the repayment of millions of dollars. In the case of “Blurred Lines” versus “Got To Give It Up,” however, many people feel the jury decision could have far-reaching, potentially negative ramifications on the efforts of songwriters in the future (or as the defendants put it, it “sets a horrible precedent”). While the two songs are indeed similar in feel, the differences between them also make it something of a gray area. The case itself could raise new questions as to what constitutes copyright infringement, and how similar two songs must be in order to claim that one infringes on the other.
From a musical perspective, the problem is this: while there are nearly infinite combinations of musical notes and sounds that can be created, there are only so many combinations that make sense as music to the ears of human beings—only so many chord combinations, only so many lyric combinations only so many rhythmic patterns (especially within a certain genre). The fact that infringement claims are so common is proof enough of how easy it is for songwriters to overlap one another; the fact that so few have actually resulted in lawsuits is an indication of how difficult it is to prove that a certain set of chords, notes or even words can be considered proprietary. Intellectual property should definitely be protected, but at the same time there is a general understanding among musicians that there is bound to be some overlap here and there, which is also why so many disputes are amicably settled.
This high-profile copyright lawsuit, unfortunately, may change that dynamic. The very fact that the blurry similarities between these two songs could result in such a resolute judgment (not to mention a record-breaking cash payout) could send unwanted ripple effects through the music community (and through the courts) as writers scramble to avoid crossing each others’ paths. Even worse, it could inspire a new wave of greed, causing a whole slew of new lawsuits (as has happened in so many other areas of modern life).
In short, while there could be some positive outcomes from this landmark case in that music creators may be forced to break new musical ground to avoid treading on common ground—chances are even greater that this case could have an even greater negative effect on creativity by dissuading creative people from attempting to create at all, for fear of generating lawsuits.
In the end, history may very well credit “Blurred Lines” as the song that should never have been written. While its producers and creators have certainly profited from it financially, in all other ways, it seems the song has generated nothing but trouble—from its risqué video content to claims that its lyrics are misogynistic and demeaning to the female sex, and now, validated legal claims from the Marvin Gaye estate. While Pharrell Williams will likely bounce back from this just fine, the controversy swirling around the song has taken a huge toll on Robin Thicke both personally and professionally, not only possibly contributing to the end of his marriage, but also revealing troubling aspects of his character—from his pre-emptive strike in the courts to his depositions revealing his drug-addled state during the song’s creation, and his admission that he had very little to do with the actual writing of the song itself. Gauging from the dismal sales of his follow-up album, “Blurred Lines” may ultimately spell the end of Thicke’s career.
But it doesn’t end there. Now that this controversial song has led to such a controversial court decision, it may very well be that the trouble generated by “Blurred Lines” will have a negative ripple effect on countless songwriters, music artists and producers for years to come, by effectively blurring the lines even further on what constitutes originality in a song, and what constitutes copyright infringement. One thing is for certain: in less than two years, “Blurred Lines” has lived up to its name in ways no one could ever have predicted.