How Blurred Are the Lines?

March 30, 2015 Uncategorized

Was it copyright infringement or creative inspiration? A federal court in Los Angeles recently ordered musicians Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, as well as Clifford Harris, Jr. (aka “T.I.”), to pay the Marvin Gaye estate $7.3 million in damages for copyright infringement, when a jury ruled that the Williams/Thicke song “Blurred Lines” infringed on Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” Mr. Williams is not a happy camper, as he believes the ruling sets a dangerous precedent that will have a chilling effect on the creative process. “There are songs that utilize other material,” he said. “But until now there hasn’t been copyright infringement, which is why this is so scary.” He added, “The verdict handicaps any creator out there who is making something that might be inspired by something else.” This case appears to be precedential because the basis of the verdict was on how the “sound and feel” of the songs were similar. “It’s a very peculiar decision because the ruling did not refer to the usual infringements that artists can be sued over, such as the writing of the song or the writing of the track,” said Paul McGuinness, the former manger of U2. “The award seems to have been made on the mood of the song, which is extraordinary.” The ruling almost certainly will inspire fear among fellow artists, in the music industry and beyond, whose creative work is inspired by the works of the great artists of the past. It does appear that plaintiff artists may now be able successfully to bring copyright infringement lawsuits against defendants on the grounds that the defendants’ work has the same mood or feel as the plaintiffs’ prior work. It will be interesting to see if more copyright infringement cases within the context of the entertainment industry result in outcomes like that in the Williams/Thicke matter.

As a fan of music, including hip hop and pop, I have always enjoyed, and been fascinated and impressed by, the way in which hip hop artists sample the work of past artists across a wide range of musical genres. By doing so, contemporary hip hop and pop artists constantly push their genres to new heights while simultaneously paying tribute and respect to the work of past greats. I have spent countless hours listening to hip hop and R&B tracks from the 80s, 90s, and this century, studying which past artists and tracks the current artists sampled, and then going back and listening to the original artists’ works. I think this creative process and evolution is quite beautiful, and as a fan of hip hop and R&B in particular, I would be very disappointed if the decision in the Williams/Thicke matter deterred other artists from carrying on what nearly every other artist in the industry has been doing for decades.

Source: Financial Times, March 20, 2015

Full title of case: Pharrell Williams, an individual; Robin Thicke, an individual; and Clifford Harris, Jr., an individual, Plaintiffs, vs. Bridgeport Music, Inc., a Michigan corporation; Frankie Christian Gaye, an individual; Marvin Gaye III, an individual; Nona Marvisa Gaye, an individual; and DOES 1 through 10, inclusive, Defendants; United States District Court, Central District of California Case No. CV 13-06004-JAK

Posted by: Adam C. Nicolai, esq. (with Andrew Cernak contributing), March 27, 2015