The maxim “Good artists borrow and great artists steal” was given a whopping smack-down by a California federal jury on Tuesday, after they found in favour of the estate of late Motown legend Marvin Gaye in a case centred on the 2013 Robin Thicke hit ‘Blurred Lines’.
For those who haven’t been keeping up with the trial because you hate Robin Thicke, or reading about a copyright infringement lawsuit isn’t your idea of a good time, here are the basic facts of the copyright trial that could resonate for decades to come.
As Billboard reports, the verdict was reached following eight days of trial testimony, which attempted to decide whether or not ‘Blurred Lines’ was essentially a rip-off of Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit ‘Got to Give It Up’.
The jury’s decision has resulted in an order for Thicke and Pharrell Williams to pay $4 million in copyright damages plus profits attributable to infringement. Breaking that down, Thicke will pay $1.8 million and Williams will pay $1.6 million.
This amounts to a total of $7.4 million. Both escaped statutory damages as the infringement was not found to be wilful. The song itself has made nearly $16.5 million since its release, the family sought more than $25 million.
The trial itself was fraught with drama and memorable moments, including depositions that saw Thicke admitting that Williams composed the song on his own as he was too drunk and high to contribute, and a pop song medley performed by Thicke on the witness stand.
Legally speaking, what was arguably most interesting about the trial was that the judge presiding over the case would not let the jury hear Gaye’s original recording, as the singer’s estate only owned compositional elements in the ‘Got to Give It Up’ sheet music.
What this means is that while things like the notes of the melody and the bass line, the lyrics, and chord progressions belong to Frankie and Nona Gaye, arguably more recognisable elements like percussion, singing style, and the ‘vibe’ aren’t covered.
This is not only where things get interesting, it’s also where the case becomes important for any artist hoping to have a career in music, as well as any artist currently operating in the music industry, including all of our favourite acts.
Simply put, the case over what most agree is just another stupid pop song could well become a landmark legal controversy over songcraft. Basically, while the two songs certainly ‘sound’ and ‘feel’ similar, musically and compositionally they differ greatly.
What this means is that, if this case does indeed set a precedent, other artists could sue younger artists for ripping off the ‘feel’ of their songs. Black Sabbath, if they were so inclined, could sue just about any heavy metal band in existence, and Airbourne could be awaiting a call from AC/DC’s lawyers.
What’s important to remember is why the Gaye estate decided to go after ‘Blurred Lines’. As the LA Times notes, ‘Blurred Lines’ had several important factors working against it. For one thing, it’s one of the biggest songs of the young century.
Besides the success of the song, Thicke ill-advisedly made references to Gaye’s track during interviews and Williams admitted to channeling the soul legend when composing the tune. Ultimately, the case was decided when Gaye’s side turned the trial into a matter of who the jury would believe more.