“Blurred Lines” between Copyright and Inspiration

The number one hit song of 2013, “Blurred Lines” by Robin Thicke, garnered over seven million copies in sales, and over 341 million views on YouTube.1 Thicke, who admitted that he was inspired by Marvin Gaye2, filed a preemptive suit in the District Court of Central District of California seeking declaratory judgment subsequent to the song’s release after Gaye’s heirs threatened to sue for copyright infringement.3 Also in the suit was Pharrell Williams, who produced the song, and Clifford “T.I.” Harris Jr., who provided the rap in the song.4 Thicke, Williams, and Harris argued in their complaint that they were not copying Gaye’s songs, that “Blurred Lines” was original, and the song merely has the same “feel” and “sound” as Gaye’s song, and thus not a copyright infringement.5

Gaye’s children, Frankie and Nona Gaye, and Bridgeport Music countered the preemptive suit, suing the trio for copyright infringement.6 The Gayes also sued EMI, a subsidiary of Universal Music Group, arguing that the company breached its fiduciary duties by not responding to the infringement claims.7 The children inherited the copyright of the composition to “Got to Give It Up,” which they are claiming Thicke copied off of.8 Bridgeport Music, owner of the band, Funkadelic’s, song, “Sexy Ways,” similarly claims copyright infringement9, but dropped out of the suit after the parties came to an agreement.10

Thicke principally argued that his song’s feeling was the essential style of a particular genre, and thus not copyrightable under copyright law.11 Thicke asserted that the Gayes were claiming to own the entire genre, and not a particular song.12 Under copyright law, to sustain a copyright infringement claim, the appellant must show: “(1) they owned a valid copyright in the work alleged to have been infringed, and (2) the infringing party copied protected elements of that work.”13 The protected element of the work was only the compositional notes which, Thicke argued, was different from the “lyrics, rhythm, and melody” of his song.14

In addition to admitting that his song was influenced by Gaye, Thicke disclosed during his deposition that he was on alcohol and drugs when collaborating for the song, and it was Williams who mainly wrote it.15 After the incident, Thicke tried to convince the jury by singing a number of songs in front of the twelve-member audience.16 Unpersuaded by his performance and arguments, the jury found “Blurred Lines” to have infringed on “Got to Give It Up” and awarded Gaye’s children $7.4 million, $4 million for the amount Gaye’s children would have received if the song was licensed, and $3.4 million in profits.17

While a victory for copyright holders, many musical artists and companies worry this judgment will affect the production and release of new songs when it holds to a similar style of a certain genre.18 In response to this, a number of artists have grouped together and submitted an amicus curiae brief to try and persuade the court that its ruling will impede on an artist’s creativity and will in essence, “punish songwriters for creating new music that is inspired by prior works . . . .”19 More than 200 artists have joined together to submit it, a number of whom are well-known in the industry.20 Stating that there is no hardline rule or test placed for the judge or jury to go by, many fear this will lead to a floodgate of litigation whenever a new song comes out.21 Thus begging the question: When is a song copying another song, and when is a song influenced by another song?

  1. Aaron Vehling, Gaye’s Kids Have Blurred View of Copyright Law, Thicke Says, Law360, (Sept. 23, 2014, 7:21 PM), http://www.law360.com/articles/580264/gaye-s-kids-have-blurred-view-of-copyright-law-thicke-says.
  2. Bill Donahue, Marvin Gaye’s Kids Say Robin Thicke Stole ‘Blurred Lines’, Law360, (Oct. 30, 2013, 7:06 PM), http://www.law360.com/articles/484902/marvin-gaye-s-kids-say-robin-thicke-stole-blurred-lines.
  3. Id.; Complaint at 1, 4, Williams v. Bridgeport Music Inc., Docket No. 2:13-cv-06004, (C.D. Cal. Aug 15, 2013).
  4. Complaint at 1.
  5. Id. at 2.
  6. Donahue, supra note 2; See Eriq Gardner, Robin Thicke Sues to Protect ‘Blurred Lines’ from Marvin Gaye’s Family, The Hollywood Reporter (Aug. 15, 2013, 6:15PM), http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/robin-thicke-sues-protect-blurred-607492.
  7. Id.
  8. Gardner, supra note 6.
  9. Id.
  10. Eriq Gardner, ‘Blurred Lines’ Lawsuit No Longer Involves Funkadelic’s ‘Sexy Ways’, The Hollywood Reporter (Mar. 27, 2014, 1:18 PM), http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/blurred-lines-lawsuit-no-longer-691729.
  11. Gardner, supra note 6.
  12. Donahue, supra note 2.
  13. Justin Maya, Music’s “Blurred Lines” verdict broadens copyright protection, FIU Law (Apr. 15, 2015), https://law.fiu.edu/blurred-lines-verdict/.
  14. Jeff Sistrunk, Robin Thicke Backpedals On Gaye’s Impact On ‘Blurred Lines’, Law360 (Sept. 16, 2014, 12:25 AM), http://www.law360.com/articles/577596/robin-thicke-backpedals-on-gaye-s-impact-on-blurred-lines.
  15. Id.
  16. Eriq Gardner, ‘Blurred Lines’ Jury Orders Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams to Pay $7.4 Million, The Hollywood Reporter (Mar. 10, 2015, 2:33 PM), http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/blurred-lines-jury-orders-robin-779445.
  17. Id.
  18. Eriq Gardner, “Blurred Lines” Appeal Gets Support From More Than 200 Musicians, The Hollywood Reporter (Aug. 30, 2016, 1:31 PM), http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/thr-esq/blurred-lines-appeal-gets-support-924213.
  19. Id.
  20. Id.
  21. Id.

Author: Michelle Yang

Michelle Yang graduated summa cum laude from Rutgers University in 2015 with a B.A. in Political Science and Psychology. Now a 3L at Rutgers Law School, she is a Publishing Editor of the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal, a member of the Minority Student Program (MSP), and former Secretary of the Asian Pacific American Law Student's Association. Over the summer, Michelle worked in a general practice law firm, mainly focusing on real estate transactions. When she is not in school, Michelle enjoys spending time with family and friends, reading, and learning how to play the guitar/ukulele.