“Blurred Lines”: Inspiration or Infringement?
This week, a federal judge in Los Angeles indicated that he is unlikely to grant a summary judgment motion in favor of Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams in their ongoing plagiarism dispute with the heirs of the legendary Marvin Gaye.
If you have been following this case, you know that the issue revolves around two songs; Gaye’s “Got to Give it Up,” and Thicke and Williams’s “Blurred Lines.” Thicke and Williams initiated the suit back in 2013 in an attempt to obtain a declaratory judgment confirming that their pop hit does not infringe on Gaye’s 1977 hit.
Gaye’s heirs soon hit back with counterclaims alleging that the glaring similarities between the two songs are a clear indication of copyright infringement by the “Blurred Lines” duo.
In response to the heirs’ allegations, the defenses raised by Thicke and Williams varied from a claim that Thicke was too high on Vicodin and alcohol at the studio to purposefully rip off the song, to a claim that the disputed elements of the songs are too common to constitute protectable material.
In the latter claim, Thicke and Williams reached back into history – all the way back to the year 1804 to be exact – to defend their position. Thicke and Williams’ response cited Ludwig Van Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony as an example of another song that contains the same musical elements that are in dispute in the songs at issue.
They argue that the series of repeated notes that are present in both “Got to Give it Up” and “Blurred Lines” were also present in Beethoven’s iconic piece. According to Thicke and Williams, if they can be accused of ripping off Gaye, then Gaye can be accused of ripping off Beethoven, among others.
All of this leads to the question of when does the “sound” of a song and its underlying musical elements cross the line from being “inspired” by a previous composition, to blatantly infringing upon it?
The legal test that is to be used in deciding copyright cases such as this is whether or not there is “substantial similarity” between the two songs in question.
However, the definition of that term is tough to nail down. The similarity issue continually arises in cases such as this one, and it often comes down to the subjective opinions of individual judges. Blurred lines, indeed.
What do you think? How similar are these songs? Decide for yourself with this mash-up:
Update: On October 30, U.S. District Judge John Kronstadt denied Thicke’s summary judgment motion, and the case is set to move forward. Stay tuned!