This one hurts. Despite the fact that I have literally zero regard for Douche of the Day Robin Thicke, I do greatly respect Pharrell. And regardless of my opinion of Thicke as a human being, I also greatly respect a musician’s right to draw upon their influences and deliver an individual take and style in a new interpretation of their heroes’ artistry. Unfortunately, it’s been reaffirmed that this is not to be tolerated in our ever so litigant society.
If you couldn’t already tell, I’m referencing the case of Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams defending their song, “Blurred Lines” against the estate of Marvin Gaye prosecuting infringement of Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up”. Though originally decided in early 2015, the case has since been appealed, and the Federal Appeals Court recently upheld the original decision and determined that the song was in fact infringed upon.
Now, of course, theft of original work should not be tolerated. A talent in copying is not a talent in trade, and would-be copiers should not be rewarded for regurgitating something that has already been created by someone else. The difference in this case however, is that Thicke and Williams didn’t lose the case over stealing notes, which they didn’t do. They didn’t steal any lyrics. Or chord progressions. Hell, their song is even in a different key. What makes this decision scary is that they lost on the fact that the feel of “Blurred Lines” was determined to be too similar to that of “Got to Give it Up”. This decision opens the door to a slew of impending (and completely unjust) lawsuits that will reference this decision and argue that a feel was stolen from their work.
Does that mean that every punk band should be sued by The Sex Pistols? Should every reggae artist be sued by the estate of Bob Marley? Now, you might argue that neither the Pistols nor Marley were the first to establish their iconic sounds within the genre, but then again NEITHER WAS MARVIN GAYE. As noted by the dissenting opinion (page 57), this could have exponentially damaging implications for artists writing music in the future. Dissenting judge Jacqueline Nguyen explained that,
““Blurred Lines” clearly shares the same “groove” or musical genre as “Got to Give It Up,” which everyone agrees is an unprotectable idea… The Gayes don’t contend that every aspect of “Blurred Lines” infringes “Got to Give It Up.” Rather, they identify only a few features that are present in both works. These features, however, aren’t individually protectable. And when considered in the works as a whole, these similarities aren’t even perceptible, let alone substantial…
The Gayes, no doubt, are pleased by this outcome. They shouldn’t be. They own copyrights in many musical works, each of which (including “Got to Give It Up”) now potentially infringes the copyright of any famous song that preceded it.”
There’s also the fun fact that Marvin Gaye himself (RIP) is not the plaintiff in this lawsuit. His children, who have not produced anything to the world even remotely as significant as what their father produced, are. I also have the suspicion that were Marvin still alive, he would not have pursued this suit out of appreciation of Pharrell and Robin’s emulation of said style. All artists have influences, and nothing is born out of a vacuum. Hopefully the rest of the music world will take this to heart and this decision won’t set off a chain reaction of infringement suits that will affect potentially immeasurable harm in the industry.
Compare this audacity of a lawsuit below.