What Does the ‘Blurred Lines’ Trial Mean for the Music Industry? Hopefully Nothing
Yesterday (March 10), a Los Angeles jury ruled that Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and T.I.’s massive 2013 hit, “Blurred Lines,” plagiarized Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song, “Got to Give It Up.” After the verdict was announced, Gaye’s children, Nona and Marvin Gaye III, were justly emotional – they had just won a battle in protecting their late father’s legacy and work.
Gaye’s son even said it was a “great day for artists and music” (via Pamela Chelin), however many are concerned that’s not actually the case. Instead, the worry is that the “Blurred Lines” decision has established a dangerous precedent for the music industry – one that will effectively limit creativity by instilling a fear in artists that, if they choose to incorporate their influences into their own work, they’ll be taken to trial and forced to pay a sum similar to the $7.3 million Thicke and Williams have to turn over to Gaye’s estate (that is unless they choose to appeal – for which there is a very good chance).
At what line are you limiting the very potential for creation you were originally trying to protect?
Protecting artists and creators is a valiant cause (especially in an industry where artists are making miniscule profits off of streaming services like Spotify), but legislating musical inspiration and influence becomes murky territory very fast. At what point do you draw the line? And at what line are you limiting the very potential for creation you were originally trying to protect?
The concern arises from the fact that “Blurred Lines” is hardly the first time an artist has lifted elements from a song that came before it or paid homage to a genre or an individual musician. In fact, it’s not even the first instance Marvin Gaye’s music has been re-appropriated (Gaye’s children are also claiming that “Blurred Lines” isn’t the only time Thicke has stolen from their father’s catalog).
Glen Rothstein, an intellectual property attorney, notes that the “Blurred Lines” case creates a new precedent because “paying homage to musical influences was an acceptable, and indeed commonplace way of conducting business and even showing respect for one’s musical idols, [but] after today, doubt has been cast on where the line will be drawn for copyright infringement purposes” (via the Washington Post).
It was just earlier this year when Sam Smith had to pay up for the similarities between his own smash hit, “Stay With Me,” and Tom Petty’s “Won’t Back Down.” And what about Mark Ronson and Bruno Mars’ “Uptown Funk”? If “Blurred Lines” is guilty of copying the “feel” of Gaye’s song, then “Uptown Funk” is a flagrant example of copyright theft from that of Morris Day and the Time. Chances are Ronson would argue – just as Williams and Thicke’s lawyers did -- that his song is an homage, not theft.
Of course, this is an artistic process that dates way back beyond “Uptown Funk” and “Blurred Lines.” Only a couple decades earlier, Michael Bolton also headed to court – a rare occurrence in music copyright cases – to argue his song “Love Is a Wonderful Thing” didn’t steal from the Isley Brothers’ song of the same name.
A couple of years earlier, rapper Biz Markie went to court over his unlicensed sampling of Gilbert O’Sullivan’s “Alone Again (Naturally)” in his own song, more simply titled, “Alone Again.” That case effectively altered the music industry’s sampling practices for good.
Like Thicke and Williams, both Bolton and Markie lost those battles. The similarities were too overwhelming, and truthfully, so were the similarities between “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up.”
But what about all the songs that don’t walk that line so closely? There are artists who use inspiration from their predecessors to fuel brand-new work – it’s a virtually inescapable reality of the creative process. Will they, too, run the risk of being taken to court and ordered to pay staggering royalties? And if so, would they then be dissuaded from writing songs inspired by their favorite artists and bands? Hell, if that was the case, the whole world of pop music would cease to exist as we know it.
The reality is that – as it stands – the “Blurred Lines” trial won’t have that kind of impact on the future of the music industry. There is, after all, a reason why these cases so infrequently go to court.
Leaving a decision on copyright law in the hands of eight jurors is risky business. They will undoubtedly be swayed by the emotion of the case: Gaye’s highly and understandably emotional children wanting to protect their father’s legacy. The jury was also probably influenced by the fact that Thicke is kind of a huge, unlikable jerk and used that legacy to substitute lyrics with overt themes of sexual assault only to later deny that he played any role at all in writing the song.
In fact, during the trial, when Gaye’s lawyers pointed out that during the 2013 press circuit for “Blurred Lines,” Thicke not only claimed that he played a significant role in the song’s making, he wanted to emulate Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” During the past two weeks, Thicke backtracked and said such claims were made under the influence of alcohol and drugs and a result of jealousy he felt toward his creative partner, Williams.
And if it wasn’t Thicke, it could’ve been the fact that Williams himself conceded that when the bass lines of “Got to Give It Up” and “Blurred Lines” are placed side by side, “It sounds like you’re playing the same thing” (via Variety).
Would a similar case arise against a smaller artist who doesn't have the same kind of deep pockets as Thicke and Williams?
The truth of the matter is Gaye’s estate stood to gain a lot here. “Blurred Lines” was everywhere during the summer of 2013. Would a similar case arise against a smaller artist who doesn’t have the same kind of deep pockets as Thicke and Williams? Only time will tell, but we think not. As music critic Bob Lefsetz wrote in his blog on the trial, “No one cares about a track that doesn’t make money. You don’t spend all that money suing to make nothing."
Thicke and Williams created a song unambiguously similar to Marvin Gaye’s, and they did so on a very public platform. While that, in itself, is not their fault, the writing of “Blurred Lines” is their responsibility, and what’s more, they can afford the payout. And this case will follow suit of those that came before it.
Whether or not this will hinder the creative potential of smaller, emerging artists to come is yet to be seen, but the chances that they’ll be taken to court in the way Thicke and Williams were seems unlikely.