The “Blurred Lines” on Copyright Infringement and Inspiration

Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” featuring Pharrell Williams and T.I. debuted at number one in over 20 countries and earned 16 million dollars making it the hottest song of 2013. The song made history as the longest running song of the decade. The song spurred controversy when critics compared the song to Marvin Gaye’s 1977 classic “Got To Give It Up.”

In efforts to control the situation, the trio sued the Gaye family, Nona, Marvin, and Frankie Gaye, saying that the single was “reminiscent of a ‘sound’ is not copyright infringement.” This preemptive measure resulted in the children of Marvin Gaye countersuing for the similarities in “Blurred Lines” and for Robin Thicke’s “Marvin Gaye fixation” within his music.

Under the provisions of the Copyright Act of 1976, copyright infringement is described as the use of copyrighted works without permission. Which infringe on the exclusive rights given to the copyright holder such as the right to reproduce, distribute, display, perform the protected work, or to make derivative works. Below is an infographic describing works that can be protected under Copyright Act of 1976.

Infographic was created by Van-Nessa Hagans using
Infographic was created by Van-Nessa Hagans using

Last March, a jury decided for Marvin Gaye’s estate ruling that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams infringed parts of Gaye’s song, “Got To Give It Up.” As a result, the Gaye family was awarded approximately 7.3 million in damages. However, in July, a judge reduced the allocated amount to $5.3 million along with adding rapper T.I., Universal Music Group, Interscope and Star Trek Entertainment to the lawsuit. Then awarded the Gaye family with 50 percent of all future royalties.

This ruling took the industry by storm bringing to question how to determine inspiration and infringement? In an interview with Time, Pharrell Williams said, “The verdict handicaps any creator out there who is making something that might be inspired by something else.”

Music business consultant and recording engineer, Seymour Hagans said “to avoid copyright infringement, an artist needs to hire someone to review music that is older than the artist. If an artist chooses to use an instrument instead, it takes on the personality of the person playing unless, they are reading the sheet music of the original work. The musician can ad-lib or change a few notes that can change the dynamic of the song.”

Copyright Infringement is something that happens in the music industry quite often. Depending on the case most aren’t heavily publicized such as Jones v. Mary J. Blige (“Family Affair”), Lil’ Joe Wein Music, Inc. v. Curtis Jackson (“In Da Club”), and Positive Black Talk v. Cash Money Records (for rapper Juvenile “Back That Azz Up”). If an artist is inspired, make sure the inspiration doesn’t sound or look exactly the same. Below is a time line of copyright infringement cases that have changed the music industry.

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