By now you’ve probably heard the news that the estate of Marvin Gaye won the copyright battle against Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams for the song “Blurred Lines.” A federal jury in Los Angeles ruled that the performer and writer of the song, respectively, stole the stylings of Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up.”
Anyone who’s heard “Blurred Lines” might conclude that it’s not much of a loss, since many agree the song is laden with deeply sexist messages. But questionable content aside, did the jury have the grounds to make this ruling to begin with?
Members of the jury based their decision on similarities in the sheet music between “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up” as well as the bass line and general funky feel of the song. As the New York Times points out, this is a pretty open-ended interpretation of copyright infringement.
“But in truth, once your start splitting hairs, the possibilities are endless,” says the Times,“listen closely to ‘Got to Give It Up’ and you may hear a skeleton of a song like Prince’s ‘Kiss.’ Will the Gaye family sue him too?”
And here lies the fundamental problem with rulings like the one against “Blurred Lines.” Is it fair to make legal decisions with large sums of money involved based on how a piece of art feels when you listen to it? There are massive amounts of songs that sound similar–some intentionally so. You can find a database of them here. But the only reason the Gaye estate went after “Blurred Lines” was because it was a huge target. It was widely popular and worth a lot of money.
The Atlantic claims the “Blurred Lines” ruling could spell major trouble for the music industry, pointing out that pop music is fueled by an evolving archive of songs that inspire and generate new songs. Claiming “Blurred Lines” violated copyright sets a dangerous precedent that could restrict artists from exploring musical styles and textures that interest them. Yes, Thicke and Pharrell admitted “Blurred Lines” was inspired by Gaye, but is inspiration suddenly synonymous with theft?
Bands like They Might Be Giants and of Montreal have spent their entire careers dabbling in the styles of other bands. Here you can listen to the They Might Be Giants song “Trees,” which the band has admitted is a pastiche of the band Yes; as well as the of Montreal song “Hegira Emigre,” which is a willful homage to Bob Dylan.
The only reason these musicians haven’t been sued is because they aren’t insanely popular like “Blurred Lines.” And if people start stifling the musical pastiche now, music could move in a very constrictive direction.
What do you think? Does Marvin Gaye own the style of “Blurred Lines”?