In a verdict on March 10, a Los Angeles federal jury decided “Blurred Lines,” written by Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, substantially borrowed from Marvin Gaye’s 1977 classic “Got To Give It Up” without permission. As a result, the jury awarded the family of the late soul singer more than $7.3 million in damages.
In October, a U.S. district judge ruled that the Gayes’ copyrights extend only to the written sheet music, or a “deposit copy” filed with the Library of Congress in 1977, and not to the actual sound recording (which was not registered) that was mainly in contention. Thicke and Williams argued that the copyrighted sheet music did not contain many of the musical elements they were accused of infringing (e.g., Gaye’s voice, backup vocals and percussion). Thus, the judge ruled that the Gayes would not be able to play the sound recording of “Got To Give It Up” in court because it may sway the jury. Instead, the eight jurors were instructed to compare “Blurred Lines” and “Got To Give It Up” only on the basis of their sheet music versions (i.e., their fundamental chords, melodies and lyrics). Nevertheless, the jury ruled that there were substantial similarities throughout the two compositions.
The legal battle started in August 2013, while the song was still No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot 100, when the songwriters formally launched a preemptive case against the Gayes, seeking a declaratory judgment that their song was not an infringement of “Got To Give It Up.”
During the trial, jurors listened to testimony from musicologists, as well as Thicke and Williams. Thicke performed both songs (along with various other songs by U2 and Michael Jackson) on a keyboard to demonstrate similar chord progressions to the jury. Also presented were statements made by both Thicke and Williams in interviews, allegedly referencing Gaye in regards to their writing process.
The case has prompted heated debate in both the music and IP industries about the “blurred line” between plagiarism and paying homage. It is still unclear what practical impact the verdict may have on how musicians write and create songs.