Why the 'Blurred Lines' $7.4 million verdict sets a new creative standard

A jury awarded the family of Marvin Gaye nearly $7.4 million in damages after deciding that Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke were guilty of copyright infringement of Mr. Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” The verdict sends a clear message to recording artists to be careful what they sing.

Phil McCarten/Reuters/File
Pharrell Williams (L), Robin Thicke and T.I. perform at the Clive Davis Pre-Grammy Gala and Salute to Industry Icons, honoring Universal Music Group Chairman and CEO Lucian Grainge, in Beverly Hills, California in this January 25, 2014 file photo. Williams and Thicke were found liable for copyright infringement in a lawsuit accusing them of plagiarizing the late soul singer Marvin Gaye in their hit single "Blurred Lines" on March 10.

The music industry is reeling.

On Tuesday, a Los Angeles jury awarded Marvin Gaye’s estate nearly $7.4 million in damages after deciding that Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke copied the late singer’s music in composing their 2013 hit, “Blurred Lines,” according to reports.

Mr. Gaye’s family had filed a suit claiming the artists had ripped off their father’s 1977 song, “Got to Give It Up.”

The case was unusual because of the large damages awarded and the fact that it reached a jury at all. The verdict could also have an impact on the modern music industry, sending a clear message to recording artists to be careful what they choose to write and sing  – a potentially difficult mandate for even the most innovative songwriters and composers who are often influenced by other musicians.

Accusations of plagiarism, and corresponding demands for credit or royalties, are common occurrences in the music business, according to The New York Times.

Such cases are often settled quickly and quietly, “with financially successful defendants doling out basically extorted payoffs to potential plaintiffs rather than facing expensive, protracted and embarrassing litigation,” Charles Cronin, a lecturer at the Gould School of Law at the University of Southern California who specializes in music copyright, told the Times.

The ‘Blurred Lines’ case not only went to a jury, it also called to question Mr. Williams and Mr. Thicke’s credibility as artists.

As The Guardian put it: “The Gayes’ lawyer branded Williams and Thicke liars who went beyond trying to emulate the sound of Gaye’s late-1970s music and copied the R&B legend’s hit ‘Got to Give It Up’ outright.”

The trial also involved multiple analyses of the two songs via musicologists’ testimonies. The presiding judge ruled, however, that the eight jurors were to compare the songs based only on their core elements, and were only allowed to listen to “Got to Give It Up” in snippets.

The guilty verdict could have an impact on music’s long legacy of borrowing from older tracks.

“The entire history of popular music has, in large part, been driven by songs that evoke other songs,” The Atlantic’s Spencer Kornhaber wrote. “It seems counterintuitive, but creative copying often accompanies innovation.”

Mr. Kornhaber remarked that rock music was born on the strings of celebrated musician Bo Diddley’s guitar – and indeed, The New York Times noted in their obituary for him that Mr. Diddley’s syncopated beat has been a staple for rock n’ roll songs through the decades, from Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” to U2’s “Desire.”  

Hip-hop as a genre has also “proudly thrived on borrowed sounds and vibes, and has clashed with the courts over the years because of sampling,” Kornhaber wrote.

Soul legend James Brown, for instance, has been sampled in nearly 5,000 songs, according to the website WhoSampled, which tracks sampled music, cover songs, and remixes through the decades.

Beside’s 1982 hit, “Change the Beat” also influenced more than 1,500 songs by everyone from Slick Rick to Justin Bieber, making it the most sampled song of all time, the same site found.

Some experts speculated that the ‘Blurred Lines’ verdict could change that tradition.

“It will cause people who want to want to evoke the past to perhaps refrain from doing so,” Lawrence Iser, a Los Angeles-based intellectual property lawyer, told the Times. “Rather than helping to progress the arts, it is a step backward.”

“Today's jury verdict has blurred the lines between protectable elements of a musical composition and the unprotectable musical style or groove exemplified by Marvin Gaye," Mr. Iser added, according to The Associated Press. “Although Gaye was the Prince of Soul, he didn't own a copyright to the genre.”

Thicke’s representative said about as much after the jury made its decision.

"While we respect the judicial process, we are extremely disappointed in the ruling made today, which sets a horrible precedent for music and creativity going forward,” he said in a statement, according to the AP.

Gaye’s daughter, Nona, reportedly wept as the verdict was read.

"Right now, I feel free," Ms. Gaye said. “Free from… Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke's chains and what they tried to keep on us and the lies that were told."

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