Blurring the Lines of Theft
After a recent U.S. District Court decision, it is clear that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams may have blurred the lines of the law when creating their record “Blurred Lines.” In early 2014, there was talk from Marvin Gaye’s family accusing Thicke and Williams of plagiarizing parts of Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up.” According to the Hollywood Reporter, in response to these accusations, Thicke and Williams filed a lawsuit seeking declaratory relief, claiming that the song was non-infringing while explaining that the family was trying to gain ownership of an entire genre of music. See Hollywood Reporter. The Gaye estate filed a countersuit shortly after claiming that the song was infringing, that Thicke had a “Marvin Gaye fixation” and that he had also copied a second song, “Love After War.” See Hollywood Reporter.
It was clear that the case would be in the media spotlight when the depositions from April 2013 became public. Thicke had admitted in the depositions that he tried to take credit for the song even though Williams wrote it, to being “high on Vicodin and alcohol” during studio sessions and lying about the process of writing the song in previous interview, reported the Huffington Post. He also had admitted that he lied to the media about going into the studio with Marvin Gaye in mind. See Hollywood Reporter. This caused controversy as it conflicted with his previous accounts of how, and under what circumstances, the song was recorded. The Judge addressed these comments in reference to the “inverse-ratio rule” where lots of access to a song necessitates less proof of similarity. See Hollywood Reporter.
On October 30, 2014, Judge Kronstadt declined the motion for summary judgment stating that the Gaye Family had “made a sufficient showing that elements of ‘Blurred Lines’ may be substantially similar to protected, original elements of ‘Got to Give It Up.’” See Hollywood Reporter. This was after both sides had used musicologists and mashups of the songs to debate the intricacies of copyright law in music. See Hollywood Reporter. In his opinion, Judge Kronstadt discussed material fact relating to the similarity of the signature phrases, hooks, bass lines, keyboard chords, harmonic structures, and vocal melodies of the two songs, explained the Hollywood Reporter. These factors make for a unique intellectual property case where the material is beyond the normal analysis of words and physical design.
An essential part of the case hinges on the controversy surrounding whether or not Gaye’s copyrights are limited to the sheet music compositions or if they extend to features heard on the actual sound recording. Judge Kronstadt, referring to the 1909 Copyright Act, concluded that the family had not shown sufficiently that the work was published with proper notices or part of necessary deposits at the Copyright Office. See Hollywood Reporter. This was vital to the remainder of the case, as the analysis for comparing the songs for substantial similarity will not examine things such as the congruence of percussive choices or backup vocals. See Hollywood Reporter.
Whatever the judge decides when the case proceeds to trial on February 10, 2015, we can all hope that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams stay within the lines of the law with their next hit.