Blurred Lines around original music: It’s all under copyright

This week a Los Angeles jury ruled that Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke were to pay $7.3 to the family of Marvin Gaye for copyright infringement of Gaye’s 1977 hit ‘Got to Give it Up’. Williams and Thicke were found guilty of willfully infringing upon the copyright of Gaye’s song to create their 2013 hit Blurred Lines.

A two week court battle saw expert analysis of the two recordings based on only a sheet music comparison of composition and lyrics. The judge rejected the consideration of production values and feel before the trail commenced.

The court’s decision to find in favor of Gaye’s family is a dubious one as the two songs are melodically different and lyrically independent of each other, sharing what Williams’ states ‘a feel, but not infringement’. Similarities were found to be in the harmonic arrangement and bass lines but not enough in the eyes of the defense to warrant infringement and not enough to convince many outsiders and industry commentators.

Lead defense attorney Howard King told jurors ‘a verdict for the Gaye family would stifle artists and inhibit musicians trying to recreate an era or genre of music.’

Of course, it is well known that with only a finite number of notes in the western scale that there can only be a limited number of independently original compositions before repeats will be made. There are countless songs sharing the same chord progression and whole genres based upon a standardized harmonic format, blues for example. Because the infringement found on this case isn’t as simple as stealing a melodic line or lyric the integrity of the verdict being based entirely on a sheet music comparison is questionable.

If upheld the ruling of this case could open a whole maelstrom of lawsuits with artists suing artists left, right and center. It looks as though emerging artists are going to have their work cut out in order to remain truly original. Trying to emulate a style, genre or sound could be risky business indeed. Since 1998, with the passing of the ‘Sonny and Bono Act’, copyright can now last up to 120 years.

By Will Heppel