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Blurry Lines

There is nothing blurry about a $7.4 million jury award. On March 11, a jury in Los Angeles ruled that Robin Thicke, Pharrell William, and Clifford Harris Jr.’s  (also known as T.I.)  2013 summer hit, “Blurred Lines”1 infringed on the copyright for Marvin Gaye’s 1977 “Got to Give It Up.”2 The jury ordered “Blurred Thicke, Williams and Harris to pay more than $7.3 million to Gaye’s family.3

Despite not taking any taking lyrics or melodies directly from “Got to Give It Up,” the jury thought that Thicke and his associates took too much.4

The case began in August of 2013 when Thicke, Williams and Harris Jr. sued the Gaye family and the Bridgeport Music (who own the composition), seeking a declaratory that Blurred Lines does not infringe upon the copyrights of “Got to Give It Up.”   The complaint claimed that while Blurred Lines evoked the era of Marvin Gaye, “[b]eing reminiscent of a ‘sound’ is not copyright infringement.”5  The Gaye family filed counterclaims for copyright infringement.

Listening to both songs, one cannot help but hear the obvious copying of the background beat and tempo. Judith Finell, a musicologist, hired by the Gaye family also disagreed with Thicke’s characterization of evoking an era. Partly citing Ms. Finell’s opinions that the “similarities between [Blurred Lines and Got To Give It Up] ‘surpass the realm of generic coincidence, reaching to the very essence of each work,’” the Judge denied Mr. Thicke’s motion for summary judgment and let the case go to trial.6

The jury’s verdict is keeping in line with the growing restrictiveness of copyright law where “when a small part of a sound recording is sampled, the part taken is something of value,” and as such infringes upon the original recording.7 Such a view of copyright law as it pertains to music is profitable for the copyright owners of older music. However, such a view stifles creativity.

That Thicke took the sounds of Marvin Gaye is without doubt. Thicke claimed to have been inspired by Marvin Gaye’s song when he recorded Blurred Lines8 , despite claiming “that he was intoxicated when he made … [those] statements.”9

One need not be intoxicated to find the current state of copyright law preposterous. According to Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films, any usage of any section of a work, regardless of length, would be in violation of copyright unless the copyright owner gave permission. The court blatantly warned artists, “[g]et a license or do not sample.”10 Perhaps the rewards focused system of copyright protection is perhaps getting out of hand. While artists should be rewarded for their work, society suffers as a whole when an artist cannot sample a song close to 40 years old. Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” was a hit11 , bringing joy fans of R&B in the summer of 2013 in the same manner that Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” brought joy to fans in 1977. It would be understandable is Marvin Gaye’s song was more recent where Mr. Gaye can claim that he has not profited enough from his work. However, Mr. Gaye estate has profited for 40 years now through that song. Perhaps copyright protection should be restricted to 20 years in the same manner as patents.12

 

 

 

 


  1. ROBIN THICKE, PHARRELL WILLIAMS, T.I., BLURRED LINES (Interscope Records, 2013). 

  2. MARVIN GAYE, GOT TO GIVE IT UP (Tamla Records, 1977). 

  3. Jury Awards $7.4 Million To Family Of Marvin Gaye In “Blurred Lines” Trial, NATIONAL LAW REVIW (Mar. 31, 2015), http://www.natlawreview.com/article/jury-awards-74-million-to-family-marvin-gaye-blurred-lines-trial

  4. See Adam Pasick, A copyright victory for Marvin Gaye’s family is terrible for the future of music, QUARTZ (March 11, 2015), http://qz.com/360126/a-copyright-victory-for-marvin-gayes-family-is-terrible-for-the-future-of-music/

  5. Williams v. Bridgeport Music, Inc.,  Compl. ¶ 7., 2013 WL 4271752 (C.D.Cal.). 

  6. Williams v. Bridgeport Music, Inc., 2014 WL 7877773 (C.D. Cal. 2014). 

  7. Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films, 410 F.3d 792, 802 (6th Cir. 2005). 

  8. Stelios Phili, Robin Thicke on That Banned Video, Collaborating with 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar, and His New Film, GQ (May 07, 2013,  1:20 AM), http://www.gq.com/blogs/the-feed/2013/05/robin-thicke-interview-blurred-lines-music-video-collaborating-with-2-chainz-and-kendrick-lamar-mercy.html. 

  9. Williams v. Bridgeport Music, Inc., No. LA CV13-06004 JAK, 2014 WL 7877773, at *10 (C.D. Cal. Oct. 30, 2014). 

  10. Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. Dimension Films, 410 F.3d 792, 801 (6th Cir. 2005). 

  11. See Ben Sisario & Noah Smith, ‘Blurred Lines’ Infringed on Marvin Gaye Copyright, Jury Rules, NYTIMES (Mar. 10, 2015), http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/11/business/media/blurred-lines-infringed-on-marvin-gaye-copyright-jury-rules.html?_r=0. 

  12. Patent FAQs, USPTO (Dec. 13, 2014 3:55 PM), http://www.uspto.gov/help/patent-help. 

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Samuel Edandison

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