Blurred Lines Lawsuit Bad For Music

You may have heard that Marvin Gaye’s estate sued Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke claiming that the song “Blurred Lines” plagiarized Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” This week, a jury decided in favor of the estate and awarded damages amounting to millions of dollars.

Being interested in music and copyright issues, I decided to listen to the two songs (there are various mashups available on Youtube) to see what the lawsuit was about. I was already familiar with “Blurred Lines” but not with “Got to Give It Up,” which was a #1 single but isn’t one of the Marvin Gaye songs that are most likely to be found on people’s playlists today. I think “Blurred Lines” is a terrible song with little to no redeeming value (uninteresting beat, not really any melody, etc), but my aesthetic judgment is not relevant to this particular issue. After listening to the songs, I can’t see how a lawsuit was even possible. A number of people have written articles saying the same thing. I think Tim Wu’s article in the New Yorker more or less sums up my thoughts. Wu is also a Columbia law professor, so he can provide legal analysis that I can’t.

My general opinion is that unless Gaye’s estate can provide solid evidence that the writers of “Blurred Lines” actually stole music from “Got to Give It Up,” there should be no case here. Note that I say “should:” this is a statement about what the law ought to do and not a statement of legal fact. The law professors writing about this mostly seem to think that the law is on the side of “Blurred Lines.”

The songs do sound quite a bit alike. Wu points out that the “Blurred Lines” writers even admit that they were inspired by Gaye’s song. However, inspiration is not the same as plagiarism. “Blurred Lines” sounds to me (and to many prominent commentators) to have a similar feel as “Got to Give It Up.” There is similar instrumentation, the instruments play similar parts, the tempo is similar, and so on. However, after listening more carefully, it sounds to me like all the similarities are superficial. The melody is different. The prominent bass part is different. Really, basically everything is similar but not identical. As Wu mentions, this is not Vanilla Ice claiming that an extra hi-hat hit makes “Ice Ice Baby” different from “Under Pressure.” The parts really are different.

To say that “Blurred Lines” plagiarizes “Got to Give It Up” is to say that one can copyright a particular style or even a whole genre of music. It is difficult to overstate how much at odds this is with how Western music has traditionally works. Composers quoting others’ pieces is a long tradition even in what we now call “classical music.” The “theme and variations” is a very common type of piece, where a composer takes a theme, often from somewhere else, and adds new twists to it. In other pieces, a single phrase from another well known piece can evoke certain feelings or thoughts in the mind of the listener. In jazz, it is very common to take showtunes or pop tunes and convert them into jazz songs, often leaving little more than the chord progression from the original song. In the pop/dance/folk music tradition, there are even genres of music where there are a limited number of prearranged beats or melodies that everyone is expected to use. If this kind of lawsuit is allowed to stand, it would potentially make all these things legally suspect. This is less like copying pages from a book without attribution and more like using common tropes and themes. To put that another way, the relationship between “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up” is more like an artist creating a cubist piece to honor Picasso than a fraud trying to pass off a fake of “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” as the real thing. “Blurred Lines” sounds to me to be at most an homage to Marvin Gaye, not a plagiarized reproduction of Gaye’s work.

Tim Wu sounds confident that this will be overturned on appeal for many of the reasons that I just mentioned. He also points out some problematic issues with the Gaye estate’s copyright claims. In other outlets, the Chris Richards at the Washington Post covers some of the history and implications of similar claims and a couple law professors offer more criticism (largely echoing the points gone over by Wu) at Slate. Rolling Stone seems to be deliberately avoiding offering any serious commentary.