For the past year and a half we have enjoyed the hit song “Blurred Lines,” composed by Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and Clifford Harris, Jr. (a/k/a T.I.). If you didn’t have the pleasure of dancing to it and grooving to the beat at least one time, then you have missed a great experience. In fact, it rocked the radio airwaves so many times per day, that when the children of the late, great soul singer Marvin Gaye heard it, they accused Thicke and Williams (who share the actual copyright to “Blurred Lines”) of copyright infringement of the their father’s 1977 hit song “Got to Give it Up.” Marvin Gaye was by far one of the best male soul singers of all time. Gaye enjoyed tremendous success during the 1960’s and 1970’s. His song “Got to Give it Up” topped the charts in 1977.
Thicke, Williams, and Harris relished in the success of their 2013 hit “Blurred Lines.” Their song topped the music charts at No. 1 for many weeks; garnered many music award nominations – winning a Soul Train Award in 2013 for Song of the Year. Thicke performed many sold-out shows, and they all made numerous television appearances promoting their hit song. They topped it all off by earning approximately $16.7 million dollars. While Thicke, Williams, and Harris all parlayed in the success of “Blurred Lines,” the Estate of Marvin Gaye (including his children Nona Gaye, Frankie Gaye, and Marvin Gaye, III) filed a lawsuit, which has prompted a big debate throughout the music industry and copyright circles about the difference between infringement and paying homage.
While Robin Thicke has freely admitted that his song “Blurred Lines” was inspired by Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give it Up,” Pharrell Williams vehemently denies that the hit song “ripped off Marvin Gaye.” Williams went on to describe his song creation process, admitting to jurors that “Blurred Lines“ channels “that ’70’s feeling“ and that he looked up to Gaye, but that to feel isn’t copyright infringement; stating, “The last thing you want to do as a creator is take something of someone else’s when you love him.“
Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up” was recorded in 1976 and released in 1977, which means its copyright is governed by the Copyright Act of 1909. Under the 1909 Act, a work had to be published with notice or a deposit had to be made in the Copyright Office. Mere distribution of a song did not meet the publication requirement. “Blurred Lines,” however, is protected under the Copyright Act of 1976 (which went into effect in 1978), which states that anytime a person writes or records an original piece of music, a copyright automatically exists. Registration with the Copyright Office is optional, but does come with certain benefits in the event of an infringement dispute. Copyrighted elements of a musical composition can include melody, chord progression, rhythm, and lyrics – anything that reflects a minimal spark of creativity and originality.
Under copyright law, if you do not own the copyright to a work, you cannot do the following without permission from the copyright holder:
• Reproduce copies of the work
• Create derivative works based on the work
• Distribute copies of the work
• Perform the work publicly
• Display the work publicly
Copyright laws (title 17, U. S. Code) provide protection to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works. This protection is available to both published and unpublished works. For complete copyright information, see the U.S. Copyright Office's web page.
After many months of depositions and trial testimonies, a federal jury in Los Angeles found that “Blurred Lines” had gone too far and had copied elements of Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up” without permission. On March 10, 2015, the jury found that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams had committed copyright infringement, and awarded more than $7.3 million to Mr. Gaye’s family. Nona Gaye and Frankie Gaye, two of Marvin Gaye’s children, are to receive $4 million in damages plus about $3.3 million of the profits earned by Mr. Thicke and Mr. Williams. The decision is believed to be one of the largest damages awards in a music copyright case. In one of the few comparable cases, in 1994, Michael Bolton and Sony were ordered to pay $5.4 million for infringing on a 1960s song by the soul group the Isley Brothers.
The aftermath of this lawsuit has begun to raise questions such as:
1. Are there any implications for the music industry or more importantly for artists?
2. Does this only matter because Pharrell and Thicke made millions?
Only time will tell how questions will be best answered. For now, all musicians, playwrights, poets, authors, and all others who desire to pen original and creative works must tread lightly and be careful to fall between the “Blurred Lines” of copyright infringement.