The Lines remain Blurry

As you all might know, Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke were ordered to pay $7.2mm to the estate of Marvin Gaye for copyright infringement in the case surrounding their 2013 super hit “Blurred Lines.”

A Los Angeles jury has decided Robin Thicke noticeably ripped off Marvin Gaye‘s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up” when he wrote the smash hit “Blurred Lines” with Pharrell Williams and T.I.

But after the judge decision, the lines are still blurred. Do you want to know why?

After a very public approach to the trial by both sides trying to get the court to see the argument their way, the jury agreed with the Gaye family, deciding that “Blurred Lines” it’s too similar to Marvin Gay’s disco classic “Got To Give It Up.”

The fact that  there was a general consensus by the music community and testimony by musicologists during the pre-trial motions stating that the songs were actually not all that alike did not help the verdict.

The case for infringement was later complicated by the judge’s decision that the jury was not allowed to hear the original recording of the Gaye song, where there were some acknowledged aesthetic similarities. Instead, the jury were treated to Thicke playing some of his songs on the piano in open court. However, the jury was convinced that the composition infringed.

I have opposite feelings about the judge’s decision, as I believe most of us do (at least everyone to whom I ‘ve talked about this case). From one side I believe the public admissions by Thicke that they had quoted the song throughout the recording session for “Blurred Lines,” and believed the sheet music didn’t fully paint the picture of authorship in this case, copyright law just talks about melody and lyrics, not about similar beats… Anyway, it’s had not to feel fear for the impact of this decision and how it might affect artist’s creative process.

The usual musical proofs used in past infringement cases would hold up here and the case would probably be dropped. Limiting the analysis to the sheet music alone and giving no weight to the sound recordings also tilted the scales heavily in favor of a dismissal.  What then was the cause?

What we’ve seen clear here is that there will always be a compelling subjective component to musical analysis that threatens to contradict previously accepted practices, no matter how concrete those seemed before. Intangibles had a chance to play an outsized role here and I believe that’s what happened. Thicke and Williams came off badly and I believe this swayed a jury of non-musicians into believing there was an infringement.

I suppose we’ll never really know, but it’s conceivable to think that the controversy surrounding the song’s lyrical content, the pre-emptive lawsuit against the Gaye Estate, the poor recollection, the sight reading fail, the admission of drug use, and the lies all had an impact on the jury.

It’s important to point out that it didn’t have to go this way. To look at the flip side of how such things can be handled one only needs to look a couple of months back to see how a matter like this can he resolved fairly and equitably without anyone kicking up dust and maintaining respect for each others’ creativity.

There is every chance the ruling here will be appealed and perhaps overturned. The question I have to ask though is, if the basis for determining infringement can be so flexible, where does one draw the line? Will this lead to an era of hyper litigation carried out by influential artists from the past trying to monetize their influence on a new generation of musicians? Will this even be the last major pop music infringement case this year? Even with a resolution in this case, the lines remain blurry.


The next step for Gaye’s family is trying to stop the song’s distribution 

Who do you think should have won this case and why? What effect will this decision have on the music industry?




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