By: Mayra Neimerck
The “Blurred Lines” legal drama that began in August 2013 has finally come to its legal end. A federal jury ruled that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’s smash hit had infringed on the copyright of Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up,” and subsequently awarded more than $7.3 million to Gaye’s family.
In this case the question was whether the musical composition of “Blurred Lines” is substantially similar to that of Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up.” Because the Gaye’s family does not own the sound recordings to “Got to Give it Up,” the jury was only allowed to compare the compositions and hear testimony on issues like melody, keyboard, and lyrics. Ultimately, the U.S. District Court jury in Los Angeles concluded “Blurred Lines” took too much of Gaye’s work, and therefore infringed.
There is no question that Pharrell Williams was inspired by Gaye and borrowed from him. But, songwriters and musicians have always “borrowed” from other artists’ ideas, characters, and sounds without hesitation. In fact, there are only so many notes on the scale and a limited number of chords, so every song builds on the work of past artists. Under copyright laws, creators may use ideas drawn from the work of others to inspire their own work. Nonetheless, the “Blurred Lines” verdict ignores this.
Even though the Gaye and Thicke recordings sound similar to each other, this blog post by Joe Bennett http://joebennett.net/2014/02/01/did-robin-thicke-steal-a-song-from-marvin-gaye/ describes the obvious note-for-note dissimilarities between both songs. Joe Bennett notes the basslines use different notes, rhythms, phrasings, and different musical scales. According to the Rolling Stone http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/robin-thicke-and-pharrell-lose-blurred-lines-lawsuit-20150310, Pharrell testified “all ‘Blurred Lines’ had in common with ‘Got to Give It Up’ was the ‘feel,’ and that “he wrote nearly every lyric and melody on ‘Blurred Lines.’” Nevertheless, the jury ruled copyright infringement.
The judge overseeing the case should never have let the case go before a jury. The finding against “Blurred Lines” will discourage artists who want to produce songs inspired by earlier music. Meanwhile, to say that something “sounds like” something else does not amount to copyright infringement. Whereas, many artists today, like Pharrell and his songwriter colleagues, work by incorporating and transforming earlier works into their own. The New Yorker http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/why-the-blurred-lines-copyright-verdict-should-be-thrown-out notes, “it was not any actual sequence of notes that Pharrell borrowed, but rather the general style of Gaye’s songs.” Essentially, future artists need to make art that refers to the works of their predecessors. The copyright goal should be to maximize the creation of valuable works of arts and not hinder artistic creation. Therefore, the ruling against Thicke was a mistake, and it should be reversed on appeal.
Mayra Neimerck is currently a 2L at Suffolk University Law School and a Staff Member of the Journal of High Technology Law. She holds a B.A in Crime and Justice, cum-laude, from Suffolk University. Mayra speaks Portuguese fluently and is proficient in Spanish.