A jury has awarded Marvin Gaye’s children nearly $7.4 million after determining that celebrity singers Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams plagiarized Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up” to create “Blurred Lines,” the longest-running number one single of 2013.Thicke and Williams, who each earned more than $7 million apiece on “Blurred Lines,” claim to have written the song independently, but Gaye’s estate argued that a number of distinct elements from “Got to Give It Up” were used in “Blurred Lines” and it was ultimately left up to the jury to determine whether the defendants infringed upon Gaye’s copyright or simply emulated the sound of Gaye’s work. The jury concluded that “Blurred Lines” infringed on Gaye’s copyright, and that decision could have a chilling effect on musicians seeking to emulate the sounds of certain artists, genres, or eras going forward.
Certain aspects of a musical composition are protectable by copyright, such as particular arrangements of notes and harmonies, while others are not, such as style, feel, or the timbre of a certain combination of instruments. In this case, it would be naïve to believe that Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” did not influence Thicke and Williams in crafting “Blurred Lines,” but copyright protection was not intended to extend to mere influence. While particular expressions of musical ideas can be protected, the ideas themselves, such as pairing an electric piano and a cowbell with a disco beat, cannot.
To the untrained ear, the similarity between the two songs may be striking. A musically trained ear, though, may notice that the two songs are in different keys and utilize different chord progressions. In other words, the success of Gaye’s infringement claim depended largely on the average juror’s inability to see past the similarities between the songs’ unprotectable characteristics (tempo, use of cowbell and Rhodes piano, use of syncopation, similar bass groove) to realize that “Got to Give It Up” and “Blurred Lines” are in fact two different songs whose similarities are mainly limited to characteristics that cannot be protected by copyright.
Had the jury been comprised of the defendants’ peers in the music profession, there is a strong possibility that Thicke and Williams would have prevailed. In light of this huge verdict, however, artists should be increasingly vigilant in their endeavors to emulate the sounds of other artists, genres, and eras in furtherance of their own art. Although the result of this case seems to blur the lines between what is protectable by copyright and what isn’t, it nonetheless serves as a reminder that copyright infringement can lead to costly outcomes.