It was bad enough when Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams tried to ruin the summer of 2013 with their smug turd of a pop tune, “Blurred Lines.” But that was just one summer, and it was somewhat redeemed by Pharrell’s other big 2013 collab, “Get Lucky.” Within a few months, we forgot what rhymes with “Hug me” and moved on.
But this time, they’ve really gone and done it. By losing in the “Blurred Lines” versus “Got to Give It Up” copyright lawsuit, Thicke and Pharrell are going to jack up the entire music industry, opening the floodgates to all sorts of frivolous plagiarism claims that will take years to sort out.
A bit of background, in case you’ve been sleeping in a hyperbaric chamber for the past month: The estate of the late Marvin Gaye sued Thicke, Pharrell, and rapper T.I. as the songwriters behind “Blurred Lines,” because the Gaye estate felt (and pretty much the entire internet agreed) that it was a blatant ripoff of Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up.” Yesterday, a jury agreed, ordering Pharrell and Thicke to pay the Gaye estate more than $7 million for copyright infringement. (T.I., because his contribution consisted only of a guest rap, was exonerated.)
At first glance, it might appear that justice has been served. To anyone with a pair of ears, “Blurred Lines” is obviously aping “Got to Give It Up,” as numerous mash-ups have made clear. And “Blurred Lines” ’ general suckiness has been widely discussed, from Rob Sheffield’s brilliant, hilarious takedown (“As a connoisseur of pop trash, I’m baffled I can’t find anything to like about a song this bad”) to the numerous observations that the song’s lyrics are, to put it mildly, kinda rapey.
So we should all agree with Gawker‘s assessment of the verdict, right? As they so eloquently put it: “Fuck that song.”
But no matter how much you may have hated “Blurred Lines,” you should be on Robin Thicke’s side in this case. Here’s why.
By all accounts, the attorneys and experts for Gaye’s estate didn’t really prove, by any previously agreed-upon legal definition, that “Blurred Lines” infringed upon the copyright of “Got to Give It Up.” All they proved, according to the Hollywood Reporter, were similarities in the two songs’ “signature phrase,” “hook,” “keyboard-bass interplay,” “lyrics” (though this was thematic, not literal — in other words, the songs share no verbatim verses), and something called “Theme X,” which was a countermelody sung under the main vocal.
That might sound like a lot. Apparently the jury thought so. But basically, it’s all just musicologist talk for the obvious fact that, structurally and rhythmically, the songs are quite similar. However, the lyrics and top-line melodies — the notes sung in a lead vocal or played on a lead instrument — are not the same, and those traditionally have been the two elements of a song protected under copyright law.
This is one of the main reasons why many observers thought the Gaye estate had no chance of winning. It’s an old music-industry truism that you can’t copyright a rhythm. (If you could, Bo Diddley would have died a billionaire.) And while “Got to Give It Up” is an undeniably great song, it’s about 90 percent rhythm. It doesn’t even have a chorus.
So according to many legal experts and musicologists, even though it skates dangerously close to the, er, line, “Blurred Lines” is more homage than infringement, no worse than Lady Gaga’s Madonna-imitating “Born This Way” (which was never the subject of a lawsuit). So how did it lose? How was a jury convinced “Blurred Lines” was a clear-cut case of musical plagiarism?
There are many theories flying around today, but most of them boil down to the universal observation that, throughout the legal proceedings, Robin Thicke came across like an asshole. Nobody likes this guy, and the jury probably didn’t like him, either. His defense strategy seemed to consist mainly of throwing Pharrell under the bus, cravenly admitting that he didn’t actually write the song and only took a songwriting credit because he was “jealous” that “the biggest hit of my career was written by somebody else” (which doesn’t even make sense — it’s not like anyone knew, when the songwriting credits were handed out, that “Blurred Lines” was going to spend twelve weeks at No. 1).
The most damning piece of evidence, in the jury’s eyes, was probably a series of 2013 media interviews in which Thicke and Pharrell openly acknowledged “Got to Give It Up” as a source of inspiration for “Blurred Lines.” Thicke tried, unconvincingly, to distance himself from those interviews, too, claiming that he was drunk and high on Vicodin for all of them and didn’t know what he was saying. To the jury, he probably sounded like a man trying to backpedal his way out of an admission of guilt.
But here’s the problem: Musicians admit their influences all the time. And they should. There are only so many notes on the scale, only so many tempos and drum patterns, only so many harmonics pleasing to the human ear. Every song, no matter how great or how terrible, builds on the work of past artists.
The “Blurred Lines” verdict ignores this, placing for the first time what boils down to “feel” under the heading of copyright infringement. By this logic, the Bob Marley estate can sue pretty much every reggae artist of the past 30 years. The Bo Diddley estate can sue George Michael for “Faith” and Bow Wow Wow for “I Want Candy.” Phil Spector can sue the Raveonettes for their entire catalog.
“If this were to become a standard,” musicologist Michael Harrington told USA Today, “it’s going to be one of the greatest growth industries of all time, suing people who sound like someone else.”
So hate on Robin Thicke all you want. Hate on Pharrell, too, although most people inexplicably seem to find his Arby’s hat more offensive than his contributions to the worst pop song in recent memory. But understand this: However deserving of our contempt these two may be, they’re not deserving of a $7.3 million lawsuit. Their work was homage, not wholesale theft. It may have been a terrible, tacky, derivative homage, but just as the First Amendment protects the most offensive language, copyright law should protect the lamest ripoffs if they fall short of the legal definition of infringement.
Most experts agree: “Blurred Lines” fell short. But now it’s set a chilling precedent for the entire music industry, and all of popular music will likely suffer the effects for years to come. What rhymes with “Hug me” again?