Lines Get Blurry In Copyright Dispute

I’m not entirely sure who to root for in the lawsuit that Robin Thicke recently filed asking a court to declare that “Blurred Lines” does not infringe the copyright on Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got To Give It Up.” On the one hand, we have the estate of undisputedly the coolest person in the history of pop music – Marvin Gaye. On the other hand, we have one of the catchiest songs I have ever heard in my life – “Blurred Lines.” Tough call. 

Or maybe not.  While I hate to disrespect the memory of the man who did this or this I think I have to go with the upstart in this suit. The Gaye family is arguing that the combination of the bass line and falsetto in “Blurred Lines” copies those same elements from “Got To Give It Up.” But it does not appear that any portion of “Blurred Lines” copies “Got to Give It Up” note for note, such as George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” did to the Chiffons’ “He’s So Fine.”

Apparently Gaye’s estate thinks Thicke infringed not so much by copying the song, as by copying the style. But that seems like it could lead to a lot of litigation. Every artist is influenced by someone. My friend Bill Thompson believes that every band that came after the Byrds copied their sound to some degree. Listen to Tom Petty some time for example. And is every sitcom that features an ineffectual doofus of a father with a nagging wife going to get sued by Ray Romano? That would make a lot of lawyers rich, but I think it would chill, if not freeze, the creative process.   

Thicke filed the lawsuit as a “declaratory judgment.” He’s not looking for money or an injunction; merely a legal declaration that his song does not infringe, and that the Gaye estate will not be entitled to any royalties. Apparently, the estate had threatened to bring suit. Thicke’s action is the legal embodiment of the “best defense is a good offense” philosophy.   

The bigger issue here – the ability of artists to create new material from their influences – seems to me way too important for the creative process to allow a court to chip away at the margins. And so, while it pains me a bit, I have to pull for the son of the Growing Pains star. Copyright litigation, like politics, makes strange bedfellows.