The Lines Just Got Blurrier for Musicians

I have previously discussed the Marvin Gaye and Robin Thicke/Pharrell Williams copyright dispute over the song “Blurred Lines”.  Earlier this week, matters got considerably worse for the funk duo: a jury found that “Blurred Lines” was substantially similar to Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” and awarded Gaye’s estate $7.3 Million in damages.

Although the collapse of the music industry is probably not as imminent as Thicke and Williams’s lawyer (and many pundits) would have it, in an industry where a good chunk of works produced in the last 50 years (and some even older than that) can be performed using the same four chords, and lists such as Top 10 Rip-off Songs, Top 10 Artists Whose Songs Sound the Same, and Top 10 Sound-Alike Songs are not at all difficult to compile, a bar for infringement set too low may indeed change the way artists produce their works by decreasing the freedom to borrow and pay homage to earlier eras and musicians on which they can currently rely.

In reaching its verdict, the jury was likely heavily influenced by statements made by the defendants during interviews about the influence of Marvin Gaye on the song.  (Those statements were recanted at trial.)  The jury was also instructed to rule not on a comparison of the sound recordings (so comparisons like this one are more interesting and entertaining than of any legal significance), but rather on a comparison of the sheet music.  According to one critique of the decision, “in an age in which popular music is incredibly diverse, with more sonic references, instruments and digital trickery available than ever, using sheet music as a measure of a song’s originality is a weak tactic, and possibly an irresponsible one.”

This is most likely not the last we’ve heard of this case. Or of the two songs.

If this case does becomes a precedent, it may have a real impact on the business models of record companies and musicians.


*Thanks to Christoffer Stromstedt for his contribution to this article.