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Gaye family win Blurred Lines dispute

By | Published on Wednesday 11 March 2015

Robin Thicke

OK, let’s see if I can do this without resorting to the gag about it being a great day for ‘Gaye rights’. So, turns out, Pharrell Williams did rip off Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got To Give It Up’ when he penned his monstrosity of a pop hit ‘Blurred Lines’.

Because yesterday the jury tasked with considering the headline-grabbing dispute between pop maker old and pop maker new sided with the former (well, his kids). New boy stole off old guy and is therefore liable for copyright infringement. To the tune of $7.3 million. Good times.

Now, I happen to think that ‘Blurred Lines’ was an irresponsible ode to the rape apologist, with lyrics that shocked not out of creative intent, but because of an ingrained misogyny and rape complacency that runs through the pop machine that created it. And I’m of the opinion that everyone involved in making, distributing and profiting from the record should be ashamed of themselves. So I’m glad that half of those profits are now being taken away from the perpetrators of the offence.

Though in mere copyright terms, this is a controversial decision. It sets a “horrible precedent”, according to the lawyer representing Williams and Robin Thicke, and not just for those popstars out there who were planning on ripping off Marvin Gaye this week. The debate over when imitation becomes infringement has long been mused over by copyright lawyers, but it’s rare that cases of this kind ever get to court, especially if, as here, the new track is clearly similar to the old track, but clearly not the same.

Of course, when disputes of this kind arise, there will always be a musicologist on hand to explain in scientific terms how one song is clearly just a rework of another. Though there’ll usually be another musicologist waiting in the wings to say the opposite. And it’s hard not to listen to such explanations without wondering, “What the fuck is a musicologist?”

For his part, Howard King, representing Williams and Thicke, had three core arguments, which actually seemed quite compelling from where I was sitting. First he honed in on what elements of the song ‘Got To Give It Up’ (because this case was about the song not the recording) were actually protected by copyright, which might seem like a lawyer resorting to one of those technicalities to further his case (it was), but the judge overseeing the dispute generally agreed with King’s interpretation of American copyright law.

Next, King focused on the fact that – while ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Got To Give It Up’ are clearly similar – so are lots of pop songs. Every popstar, not least a certain Mr Gaye, is influenced by the oeuvre of other artists they rate. And to prove that fact, King had Thicke play a pop medley on the piano, something akin to Axis Of Awesome’s ‘Four Chords’ routine (after we noted that fact, we were quickly informed by a reader that ‘Four Chords’ had basically been done years earlier by comedian Rob Paravonian, showing that, even in musical comedy, nothing is truly original).

And finally, King asked the courtroom why a pop producer as successful as Pharrell would decide, on a whim one day, to rip off Marvin Gaye. Which – while Williams was the man behind the ‘Blurred Lines’ lyrics, about which you already know my views – is a pretty fair point to make.

The Gaye family’s attorney, Richard Busch, relied heavily on one of those musicologists, then cried foul at King’s insistence that the tedious technicalities of American copyright law should be considered. King was just trying to confuse the jury, said Busch.

And finally the Gaye’s legal man revelled in the fact that Robin Thicke’s testimony required the singer to admit to lying in media interviews about his role in creating ‘Blurred Lines’ and the influence of Marvin Gaye on that process. By his own admission Thicke was a liar, so why trust his testimonies now? Except, as King pointed out, media interviews aren’t conducted under oath. And whatever you think about Thicke (I think he’s an odious dick), that doesn’t mean he’d lie in court.

It was there that the legal arguments rested. And as I say, for my money – and despite my self-confessed bias against Pharrell and the Thickster – theirs was the stronger case. But not in the eyes of the jury who, while rejecting the unprecedented $25 million in damages the Gayes wanted (citing the impact ‘Blurred Lines’ had had on Thicke’s concert trade as justification), ruled very much in the family’s favour, with the $7.3 million damages figure still record breaking.

An appeal will almost certainly follow, so this matter is likely far from resolved. Though in the short term the ruling arguably extends the reach of American music copyright into realms it shouldn’t really tread, in a way that, ironically, can only hinder the people copyright is meant to protect, the music makers of the future.

Speaking outside the court, King told reporters: “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. We are reviewing the decision, considering our options and you will hear more from us soon about this matter”.

Though on the upside, this turn of events might stop the ongoing distribution of ‘Blurred Lines’ itself, in the short term at least. Busch told Rolling Stone overnight: “We’ll be asking the court to enter an injunction prohibiting the further sale and distribution of ‘Blurred Lines’ unless and until we can reach an agreement with those guys on the other side about how future monies that are received will be shared. We’ll be doing that in about a week or so”.

Blimey. What a good day for Gaye rights.