Singer Robin Thicke, Songwriter and Producer Pharell Williams, and the family of the late Motown star Marvin Gaye are blurring the lines of pop music.
On Tuesday, March 10, a Los-Angeles jury ruled that Thicke and Williams ripped off portions of Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up” and incorporated those parts into their 2013 smash single, “Blurred Lines.” They were required to pay $7.4 million in reparations, which evens out to about $1 for every single of the song sold.
To the family, Thicke was required to pay $1.7 million, Williams was required to pay $1.6 million, and the other $4 million were assessed as damages. The record label, Star Trak, LLC, and rapper T.I., who also collaborated on the song, were not held responsible.
“This verdict was a mistake,” said Chris Bartley, an Instructor of Music at Pitt-Greensburg. “This ruling could become problematic for the future of pop music, since the genre relies heavily on shared influences among artists, in addition to the development of new ideas.”
The jury was instructed to make its ruling based on the similarities in the sheet music of both songs. This was because Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” was released nine months before the new copyright law—that states recordings, not sheet music, are the evidence in plagiarism trials—came into effect. This means that the actual recordings of the songs should not have factored into the jury’s decision.
“The members of the jury were not trained in musical theory,” Bartley said. “They couldn’t read the sheet music, so recordings of the songs had to be played. The bass lines, chord progressions and melodic contours of the songs were not the same, but because they heard the recordings, the jury said Thicke and Williams copied the feel of Marvin Gaye.”
Bartley said feels and styles can, legally, be imitated.
“The jury said that high falsetto voices and cowbell noises copied the feel of Marvin Gaye, but ideas and chord progressions cannot be copyrighted,” he said. “The application of ideas can be protected by law, but not the ideas themselves.”
Copyright infringement on applications of ideas include what The Beach Boys did in 1963 with their song “Surfin’ USA.” Brian Wilson lifted the entire musical composition of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” (1958) and added new words on top of it. The matter was never settled in court, but Berry was given writer credit on future releases of the song.
Another example would be the 1969 Led Zeppelin song “Whole Lotta Love.” Robert Plant admitted in an interview, years later, that Jimmy Page created the guitar riff in the song, but Plant didn’t know what words to sing over it, so he stole lyrics from the Muddy Waters song “You Need Love,” which was written by Willie Dixon. No action was taken.
The real question, though, is not who stole from whom. It’s where are we going to draw the line?
“There has to be some type of protection to encourage innovation in the music industry,” Bartley said. “But there also needs to be ideas and styles that can pass into the public domain.”
Bartley likened this idea to modern medicine and cancer drugs.
“If I was a researcher and I came up with a drug that could cure cancer, of course I would want to patent it and make some money off it,” he said. “But my basic formula, the key components of the drug that fight cancer, should be public domain so other researchers can improve the drug or make it more affordable. The basic elements should be shared, and in music, it’s the same concept.”
Bartley said that not all copyright deals are as hostile as the “Blurred Lines” case. These deals are a typical part of the creative process in the music industry. However, he also said that revenue in the industry is one third of what it was 15 years ago.
“If you think of it like a pie, when there’s only one third of it left to eat, everyone is rushing to get their cut. In the music industry, everyone is rushing to get their cut of the money, so don’t be surprised if more cases like this one start popping up frequently.”
Christy Walters is a writer and the assistant editor of The Insider.