‘Blurred Lines’ Blurs the Line of Protectable Music Copyrights

A California federal jury recently awarded the estate of Marvin Gaye $7.4M dollars over the track ‘Blurred Lines’ for copyright infringement by Pharrell Williams, TI, and Robin Thicke. The court found producer and artist Pharrell Williams guilty of unlicensed sampling of Marvin Gaye’s classic track ‘Got to Give It Up’ for the production on Robin Thicke’s very popular ‘Blurred Lines’.

As far as music law goes the court has long upheld three factors of musical composition copyright infringement: cadence, tempo, and lyrics. Things like melody, cord arrangements, and genre remain unprotected. So let’s start at the beginning, Marvin Gaye wrote the lyrics to ‘Got To Give It Up’ and in-house producer Art Stewart produced the classic hit. Marvin Gaye’s estate holds a copyright in the musical composition (sheet music) of ‘Got to Give it Up’ the copyright for the sound recording (master recording) of the track belongs to the record label, Tamla Records (Motown).

Rarely do copyright infringement cases go the distance but here the case ran its course passing summary judgment and settlement. Ultimately the case rested on the very thin legal line between inspiration and imitation. Howard King, attorney for Clifford Harris (TI) and Robin Thicke, focused on the technical requirements for copyright infringement telling the jury “We’re going to show you what you already know: that no one owns a genre or a style or a groove.”, while Richard Busch relied on notable industry musicologists to support the Gaye’s estate claims of copyright infringement. These musicologists noted the similarities in the songs signature phrases, hooks, keyboard-bass interplay, lyrics and theme of the songs. The jury agreed.

So what’s next: The law is based in clear standards however the jury’s award in this case for lack of a better pun blurs the lines of copyright law. The two tracks at issue are notably similar but technically different, listen below:

Pharrell’s production on ‘Blurred Lines’ does not meet any clear copyright infringement standard however the songs taken as a whole are notably similar in their general sound and feeling. This case sets a limiting standard for copyright law and one the higher courts will have to enforce (highly unlikely since a “feeling” of a sound recording cannot be defined) or overturn on appeal.


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