The Blurred Lines Lawsuit's Effect on Songwriters and the Music Industry

Marvin Gaye's children received $7.4 million dollars in a lawsuit involving Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke
Marvin Gaye's children received $7.4 million dollars in a lawsuit involving Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke

After a jury determined that Blurred Lines by Robin Thicke violated the copyright of Gotta Give It Up by Marvin Gaye, many songwriters are fearful about what this means to them. In the past, copyright lawsuits typically focused on plagiarized lyrics or melodies. However, this case was quite different. The jury awarded Gaye's children $7.4 million mainly because Blurred Lines and Gotta Give It Up have a similar feel.

DJ, producer and musician Questlove had this to say about the verdict:

Look, technically it’s not plagiarized. It’s not the same chord progression. It’s a feeling. Because there’s a cowbell in it and a fender Rhodes as the main instrumentation — that still doesn’t make it plagiarized. We all know it’s derivative. That’s how Pharrell works. Everything that Pharrell produces is derivative of another song — but it’s an homage. If it were a case of melodic plagiarism, I would definitely side with the estate.

Blurred Lines Versus Gotta Give It Up

Stay With Me Versus I Won't Back Down

And that's the concern. Blurred Lines has a different chord progression and melody than Marvin Gaye's song. It's written in a different key. The lyrics and themes of both songs are completely different. They have a different rhythm and tempo. Gotta Give It Up wasn't sampled in any way.

This is different from a recent case involving Tom Petty and Sam Smith. Smith agreed to give writing credits to Petty on his song Stay With Me. The chorus of Stay With Me sounded like a slowed down version of the chorus of I Won't Back Down by Tom Petty. Smith and Petty reached an agreement without any legal proceedings.

Music evolves so every song bears some relationship to what came before. Every artist piggybacks off the work of their predecessors. Just about every artist happily cops to their influences. Both Pharrell and Robin Thicke were open about Marvin Gaye being a major influence on their music and that was used against them at trial. But no one is 100% original. In a 1992 interview, singer Pete Seeger said:

"My father used to say, ‘Most folk music is the product of plagiarism. That’s what I learned from Woody Guthrie. You borrow a tune here, then change it a little bit. You borrow some words there. Then add to them. You don’t claim to be original."

Bob Dylan's take on plagiarism is "It’s part of the tradition. It goes way back." Producer and songwriter Ricky Reed said:

"...the “Blurred Lines” case makes me a little nervous because those songs aren’t really musically related in any way when it comes to the chords or the melodies...That for me is pretty scary because it could open up a whole floodgate of people being like, “Well, this song kinda feels like this old song.” What’s made music great for generations and generations is that young musicians are inspired by the old dogs and make records that show their influence. If people start suing based on a feeling, that will be a dark day for creators."

Radio.com lists 8 different artists who could potentially sue Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars because their song Uptown Funk has the same feel

Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars has spent 10 weeks in the #1 spot on the Billboard Hot 100. Radio.com has an article titled 8 Artists That Could Sue ‘Uptown Funk’ on the Same Grounds as ‘Blurred Lines’ that indicates how potentially damaging the verdict could be. Marvin Gaye's family is also considering a lawsuit against Pharrell Williams because they say his song Happy sounds too much like Ain't That Peculiar. Again, the songs really aren't alike other than the feel. The "feel" of a song is such a vague thing that multiple artists could claim a song violates their copyright.

Thicke and Pharrell's lawyer has already filed an appeal, so there's a possibility the verdict could be overturned. If it's not, it's hard to say what will happen. Artists may be less willing to admit to their influences to avoid potential lawsuits. But that may not be enough to prevent lawsuits. Influences are often too obvious.

And in many cases artists want to pay homage to their favorites artists. Throwback music has become popular with artists like Adele and Sam Smith harkening back to the heyday of Motown. Get Lucky by Daft Punk was heavily influenced by the disco era. Meghan Trainor has brought back Doo Wop. Uptown Funk brings back funk. Kesha has been teasing a song called Child of the Moon that she said "has a Stevie Nicks-witchy vibe." She told a Teen Vogue writer she was listening to a lot of Fleetwood Mac (the band has a Stevie Nicks penned song called Sisters of the Moon) and other 70's rockers for inspiration while writing her third album. That's not an unusual thing for artists to say but those kinds of admissions could be used against them in the post Blurred Lines lawsuit era.

Will this lawsuit bring this throwback juggernaut to a screeching halt as artists, songwriters and labels desperately try not to sound much like anyone else? Will that even be possible? Will far less songs get released if labels worry they sound sort of like another song? Will the Blurred Lines verdict lead to chaos?

Maybe things won't be so dire. The verdict could be overturned on appeal. Even if it isn't artists, songwriters and producers have been getting sued for actual plagiarism for years and it didn't stop plagiarism. Mega-producer Dr. Luke has been accused of plagiarism throughout his career and multiple lawsuits didn't stop him. When Katy Perry released the Dr. Luke produced Roar, it sounded almost exactly like Brave by Sara Bareilles and both songs even have similar themes of self empowerment.

So, if lawsuits haven't stopped actual plagiarism, it's possible the Blurred Lines verdict won't stop artists who want to catch the feel or vibe of another artist's work or the sound of a particular era. Many rights owners may be unwilling to file a lawsuit solely on another song having the same feel simply because other juries might not agree that a copyright violation occurred. As Billboard points out:

There's not much legal precedent from the jury's decision, and every reason to believe it will be a rare one. For every "Blurred Lines" verdict, there are hundreds of unsuccessful lawsuits alleging song theft. Federal judges simply won't tolerate allegations concerning the infringement of unprotected, generic ideas -- and any attorney not warning clients of the long odds is committing borderline malpractice.

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