Blurred Lines: The difference between inspiration and appropriation

Author:Ben Challis
Position::Legal Counsel, Glastonbury Festivals Limited, United Kingdom
SUMMARY

If songwriters were unclear about the line between taking “inspiration” from someone else’s work and actually copying it, they may be even more confused following a US federal jury’s decision in the “Blurred Lines” case, especially in the era of hip hop and rap, where sampling and referencing are commonplace.

 
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Robin Thicke’s massive 2013 hit Blurred Lines will be one of the most talked-about tracks of this decade. Already under a cloud of controversy because of the nature of its lyrics and promotional video, the track triggered a second round of press commentary in February and March 2015 when the family of soul legend Marvin Gaye won a legal victory after a federal jury ruled that the song copied Gaye’s 1977 chart topper Got To Give It Up. The jury decided that Robin Thicke and co-writer Pharrell Williams should pay nearly USD7.4 million in damages.

The case

The Blurred Lines case (Williams v. Bridgeport Music, Inc. (No. 13-06004) (C.D. Cal. November 19, 2013)) began when Thicke, Williams and rapper TI (Clifford Harris Jr.), who performed the track, responded to concerns about the similarities between the two recordings and sought a declaratory judgment that there was no infringement.

Pre trial, US District Judge John Kronstadt made a ruling to prevent the Gayes’ attorney, Richard S. Busch, from playing the two recordings side-by-side, noting that it was the composition represented by the sheet music, and not the sound recording, that was at the heart of the case. Personally, I find it hard to agree with the jury’s decision that there is any substantial similarity between the two songs.

It was interesting that the decision came just two weeks after the Stay With Me settlement, where Tom Petty and Jeff Lynne were given a 25 percent share in that song, performed and co-written by Sam Smith, which allegedly plagiarised Petty’s 1989 hit I Won’t Back Down.

The difference between “inspiration” and “appropriation” has always been blurred.

It transpired from the evidence given in court (not least by Thicke himself) that although credited as a writer, Thicke had contributed little to the song. But he did at least entertain the jury, singing along to a short mix of tunes that included U2’s With or Without You, Alphaville’s Forever Young, Bob Marley’s No Woman, No Cry, Michael Jackson’s Man In The Mirror and The Beatles’ Let it Be to demonstrate that songs with little in common can be seamlessly stitched together and that tracks often contain commonplace musical elements.

As lead writer and producer, Pharrell Williams gave evidence that Marvin Gaye and 70s soul were part of the musical milieu that he grew up in. But he claimed he would never seek to “take something of someone else’s when you love him”.

Following the song’s release, Williams said he saw...

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