Blurred Lines, the much-loathed, much-loved song performed by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, sounds a bit like Got To Give It Up by Marvin Gaye. Anyone with good hearing would agree with that, surely. After all, it’s got a similar tempo, a similar feel, and they both feature a bloke singing in a high voice. The question currently being debated is whether Thicke and Williams owe sufficient debt to the Gaye track to be on the losing end of a court case which concluded yesterday. Having been found guilty of a breach of copyright, they now face a $7.4m bill for damages.
For many people, this is a no-brainer. When they hear the two songs one after the other, blaring out of a laptop speaker, they’ll state categorically that one of them – the one from 2013 – surely couldn’t have existed without the other one, from 1977. And yes, that’s probably the case. After all, the borrowing of sonic palettes is endemic in popular music – indeed, most forms of music. Thicke has frequently cited his love of Gaye’s music in interviews (although, as became clear during the case, it was Williams who actually wrote Blurred Lines). But the view that Blurred Lines plagiarises from Marvin Gaye is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of what songwriting is. Let’s be clear: these two songs are fundamentally different. They have different structures, different melodies, different chords. Were it not for the similarity of the sparse arrangement (an offbeat electric piano figure and a cowbell clanking away at 120bpm) the court case wouldn’t even have taken place.
Yes, the two songs sound similar. But you can’t copyright the sound of something. If the implication is that you now can, there’ll be about 20,000 indie bands from the last 30 years getting extremely nervous that they’re about to hear from the Velvet Underground’s lawyer. George Michael will be getting ready to hand over his house to Earth Wind & Fire. A cataclysmic explosion of litigious activity awaits. Because, based on this ruling, everyone will end up owing money to everyone.
The judge in the case knew this. He tried to create a level playing field by not allowing Gaye’s track to be played in court alongside Blurred Lines. Only the sheet music, and reconstructions thereof, were permitted as evidence. Lawyers for Gaye’s family had to prove to the jury some kind of link between the two tracks, despite the primary illustration of said link being ruled inadmissable.
A press release from 2013 by Gaye’s family’s lawyers repeats one of the initial allegations circulating online, namely that the bassline and the cowbell patterns in Blurred Lines were stolen from Got To Give It Up. This blog post by Joe Bennett does an excellent job of describing why this certainly isn’t the case; yes, Blurred Lines uses a bass, and a cowbell, but the groove is completely different. The only similarities you’re left with are the speed of the track, and the “vibe”. But there’s nothing in copyright law about “vibe”.
In the end, the case appears to have hinged on melodic fragments of Blurred Lines that were adjudged to have breached copyright. (It certainly wasn’t the dubious lyrics.) But in this blog post, written before the ruling, Dan Reitz details very nicely why a) no one has done anything wrong, and b) the worrying implications of the ruling should it go against Thicke and Williams.
“The Gayes’ musicologist,” he writes, “has chopped the music up into pieces that are so small that it would fundamentally change the process of songwriting if they won. If three common notes within a single similarly-shaped phrase is all that is needed to successfully sue someone, then the floodgates of litigation are about to swing wide open.”
Countless songs in the popular music canon have way more resemblance to each other than the two featured in this court case, but few people pick up on them, simply because they’re styled differently. (Mashup artists have been making hay with this for years.) By styling Blurred Lines in a similar way to Got To Give It Up, Thicke and Williams laid themselves open to incorrect accusations of plagiarism. They tried to use the legal system to point out that “vibe” cannot be copyrighted, that “vibe” cannot be written down, but, incredibly, they contrived to be found guilty. We only have 12 notes in the musical scale, fellow musicians. Be very careful which ones you choose next. Lawyers are getting hungry.