Why the “Blurred Lines” Lawsuit Verdict Was a Mistake

No matter how much one dislikes "Blurred Lines", it's hard to see how the victory of the Gaye estate will be beneficial to artists in the future.

Despite any personal opinions or beliefs one may have about the controversial 2013 hit, music fans have to realize that the verdict reached in this week’s case regarding the similarities of Robin Thicke’s number one single “Blurred Lines” to the classic Marvin Gaye track “Got To Give It Up Pt. 1” is reckless, misguided, and above all just an absolute mistake. The influence of Gaye’s song in “Blurred Lines” is evident, and has been publicly admitted without hesitance by the song’s authors Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke. The fact that “Give it Up” inspired “Blurred Lines” is not up for debate, but it’s ultimately not the issue at hand.

What we’re seeing with the verdict that sides in favor of Gaye’s estate is a precedent being set that is simply terrifying for musicians and music fans equally. United States copyright law does not allow a musical artist to copyright a chord change, rhythm pattern, time signature, “riff”, or even a title. Melodies and lyrics are the only things that can be copyrighted by musicians and used successfully in court when charging another artist with infringement. (See Cat Stevens vs. the Flaming Lips or, more recently, Tom Petty vs. Sam Smith for examples.)

“Blurred Lines” does not lift any melody or lyric from Gaye’s song; that argument wasn’t even used by Gaye’s estate’s prosecution in the trial. What they argued instead was that “Blurred Lines” shared too many musical “similarities”, ones too vague to be defined by any musical or legal terminology. The strutting cowbell and bass interplay that each song’s intro shares as well the falsetto vocals used by both Thicke and Gaye were essentially the only pieces of evidence that the Gaye estate felt was necessary to show the jury that the Thicke tune was a blatant rip-off of the Gaye song.

So what’s the problem? You can’t copyright falsetto vocals. You can’t copyright cowbell. You can’t copyright bass guitar, and you certainly can’t copyright a combination of the three together. While there is an undoubtable similarity between the two, perhaps uncomfortably so, there is not a shared melody or lyric, the rhythms are in different time signatures, and the songs are in entirely different keys. What’s even more upsetting is that the prosecution evidently asked the jury to compare the sheet music between the two songs, as if Marvin Gaye sought to copyright notes. This also presumed that the jury of laypeople were all somehow music theory experts, as opposed to what they probably were, namely ordinary people staring cluelessly at a series of lines and dots.

In the case of Cat Steven’s suing the Flaming Lips for similarities between the latter band’s 2002 single “Fight Song” and Steven’s “Father and Son”, the melody sung by Steven’s in 1974 is quite obviously lifted note for note by Coyne and the Lips. The chorus of Sam Smith’s hit “Stay With Me” bears the exact same descending melody of the chorus of Tom Petty’s 1989 single “Won’t Back Down”.

But what does “Blurred Lines” share with “Give it Up”, other than a similar arrangement and vocal delivery? Logically speaking, with the precedent set by this case, Bo Diddley and Little Richard have the green light to absolutely wreak havoc upon the Rolling Stones’ legacy and financial assets. Phil Spector can now annihilate Brian Wilson’s body of work. Antonio Carlos Jobim can now become the only person on the planet allowed to play bossa nova.

As it stands today, there doesn’t seem to be a particularly strong backlash against the ruling among people in the music community, although some have started to speak up against it. I think this can simply be chalked up to the fact that Robin Thicke is an even more unlikeable Justin Bieber in the body of a 40 year old, and that Marvin Gaye is one of the most beloved and talented artists of any genre of all time. I understand the dislike of “Blurred Lines”: the lyrics are tasteless at best, the hook it annoying, and yes, it bears its influence a bit too visibly on its sleeve. However, we can’t let our dislike of a song conflict with an artist’s ability to be influenced by those that have come before them. Without influence, popular music as we know it ceases to exist.