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Marvin Gaye family v. Robin Thicke: Lawsuits mount over 'Blurred Lines'

Marvin Gaye wrote two songs that his heirs allege, in a lawsuit filed Wednesday, were plagiarized by artist Robin Thicke, including Thicke's controversial 2013 chart-topper, 'Blurred Lines.' Here's the backstory on the parties' dueling lawsuits.

By Contributor / October 31, 2013

Robin Thicke performs on NBC's 'Today' show in New York. The superstar is named in a lawsuit alleging that he plagiarized his hit song, 'Blurred Lines.'

Charles Syke/Invision/AP

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Everybody get up – the song “Blurred Lines” is back in the news. Robin Thicke, who has taken blistering criticism over the past seven months for the lyrics, music video, and VMA performance of his controversial song “Blurred Lines,” is now starring in another drama, this time in a courtroom. 

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Staff Writer

Elizabeth Barber is a staff writer at The Christian Science Monitor. She holds a master’s degree from Columbia Journalism School and a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and English from SUNY Geneseo. Before coming to the Monitor, she was a freelance reporter at DNAinfo, a New York City breaking news site. She has also been an intern at The Cambodia Daily, in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, and at Washington D.C.’s The Middle East Journal.

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The children of late Motown singer Marvin Gaye filed a copyright infringement lawsuit Wednesday against recording artists Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and Clifford Harris Jr., alleging that the songwriters plucked compositional elements from a Gaye song for use in their own "Blurred Lines," a 2013 hit single. The suit also targets music publisher EMI April, which has business ties with the musicians on both sides of the legal battle, accusing it of promoting “Blurred Lines” at the Gaye estate’s expense.

Gaye, famous for his 1982 hit “Sexual Healing,” among other songs, and as the posthumous winner of a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, died in 1984. He has been called the “The Prince of Soul.”

The lawsuit, first reported by the Hollywood Reporter, comes two months after Thicke, Williams, and Harris filed a preemptive suit against the Gaye estate in a California court, seeking a ruling to establish that "Blurred Lines" does not plagiarize Gaye’s 1977 song, "Got to Give it Up.” At the time, rumors had been mounting that Gaye’s children – Nona Marvisa Gaye, Frankie Christian Gaye, and Marvin Gaye III – were planning to sue the songwriters for comments that both Thicke and song reviewers had made suggesting that the 2013 hit had been pulled from one of Gaye’s songs.

In a May interview with GQ, Thicke said he and Williams had written “Blurred Lines” in just 30 minutes, after listening to Gaye’s song and deciding “we should make something like that, something with that groove.” Several music reviewers, including The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Vice, found that highly plausible, noting the resemblance of the two songs.

"Don’t let the video’s modernism fool you: white-soul conservatism is the order of the day, and this hit is just as nostalgic as Mr. Thicke’s first single was," wrote The New York Times in an August review of "Blurred Lines," which made explicit comparison of the song to Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up." The review, which wryly called Thicke "white soul's leader," had seemed at the time a harbinger of a coming lawsuit against the superstar for ripping off a pioneering black soul singer's music.

Thicke, after filing the preemptive lawsuit in August, retracted his own comments in a September interview with TMZ, in which he said his song and Gaye's song had no relationship

“Being reminiscent of a 'sound' is not copyright infringement," write the plaintiffs in the preemptive lawsuit.

As expected, Gaye’s children did indeed file a lawsuit. But, in a surprise, they also allege that Thicke plagiarized more than one of their father’s songs. In addition to “Blurred Lines,” Thicke's 2011 song, "Love After War," is a rip-off, this time of Gaye's 1976 song, "After the Dance,” the suit charges.

The suit, filed in US district court in Los Angeles, includes an attached report from a musicologist who identifies at least eight similar compositional features between “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give it Up,” including the “unusual cowbell instrumentation, omission of guitar, and use of male falsetto.” The plaintiffs also write that “any ordinary observer would immediately recognize ‘Love After War’ as a copy of ‘After the Dance.’ ”

“The songs’ substantial similarities reach the very essence of each work,” the suit says.

The suit also names EMI April, the song publisher, now under Sony/ATV, which manages Gaye’s roster of songs and which also co-owns Thicke’s songs, the Hollywood Reporter said. The plagiarism lawsuit also alleges that EMI April’s chairman tried to intimidate Gaye’s family into not filing suit, telling his heirs that in doing so they would be “killing the goose that laid the golden egg,” as well as “ruining an incredible song” ["Blurred Lines"].

Overall, EMI April failed “to remain neutral when faced with a conflict of interest, and instead g[ave] strong support to the Blurred Writers, in direct detriment of the Gaye Family,” the suit says.

The Gaye family is asking that EMI April lose the rights to administer Gaye’s catalogue of songs, as well forfeit all profits from Thicke’s music. The plaintiffs are also seeking $150,000 in damages for each act of infringement.

“We have repeatedly advised the Gaye family's attorney that the two songs in question have been evaluated by a leading musicologist who concluded that 'Blurred Lines' does not infringe 'Got To Give It Up,’ ” said SONY/ATV, in a statement. “And while we very much treasure the works of Marvin Gaye and our relationship with the Gaye family, we regret that they have been ill-advised in this matter."

The Gaye family’s lawsuit also names Thicke's wife, actress Paula Patton, who is featured in "Love After War,” Star Trak Entertainment, Interscope Records, and Universal Music Group recordings, among others.

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