Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams have been ordered to pay $7.2 million dollars compensation to Marvin Gaye’s estate after their hit “Blurred Lines” was found to infringe the copyright of Gaye’s 1977 song “Got To Give It Up”.

Inspiration or Appropriation?

The catchy pop tune Blurred Lines was one of the biggest successes of 2013, leading the US Billboard top 100 for 12 weeks, the video was viewed almost 400 million times.

Members of Marvin Gaye’s family publicly denounced Blurred Lines for ripping off Gaye’s 1977 song. In response, Williams and Thicke pre-emptively took the Gaye estate to court, seeking a declaration that the song did not infringe copyright.

Most casual listeners to the songs would notice a distinct similarity between them. Indeed, Williams and Thicke make it clear that this was intentional, and that their song is meant to reference Gaye’s.

However, it was argued that the likeness between the songs is a matter of artistic inspiration, rather than a theft of Gaye’s ideas amounting to a copyright infringement.

Copyright law

It is important to note under US copyright law what was protected was Gaye’s musical composition, rather than the resulting song that was produced in the studio. This is because the law prevents sampling of sound recording (which did not happen in this case) rather than “sound-a-likes”.

Therefore, rather than simply listening to the two songs the jury was required to consider whether the sheet music was similar. Both sides called expert witnesses who put forward their conflicting findings on matters often revolving around as little as a handful of notes from the songs.

Eventually it seems that the jury were convinced by the witnesses for Gaye’s estate. However, it has been suggested that they could have been influenced by other factors like the overall feel of the songs and the similarities in their styles, even though these were not technically relevant.

A good decision?

It is easy to have sympathy for Gaye’s family. Blurred lines is clearly heavily inspired by Got to Give it Up, so surely his estate is deserving of a portion of the large amount of money earned from the song.

On the other hand, no musician or songwriter exists in a vacuum. All have been influenced by others. Artists being inspired by other’s sounds and incorporating them into their songs is what has allowed the evolution of different musical genres and the huge variety of music we benefit from now.

Copyright law exists mainly to stimulate creativity, but applying it too strictly could have the opposite effect by cramping musicians’ ability to follow their artistic inspiration.

Future implications?

This case does not set a precedent in legal terms. The jury simply applied the law to the facts of the case according to their judgement.

While in this case the result seems to come down heavily in favour of copyright owners, future juries could take a more relaxed view. So while in the short term songwriters might be a little more cautious about borrowing from other songs, in the long run it is likely to be business as usual.