12 March 2015

Ain't Nothin' Like the Real Thing

For the last year and a half, the music industry has been awaiting a decision in the U.S. as to whether Robin Thicke’s 2013 hit “Blurred Lines” was too close to a song by Marvin Gaye so as to amount to copyright infringement.

A federal jury in Los Angeles compared “Blurred Lines” with Marvin Gaye’s hit “Got to Give it Up” and decided there were elements of the 1977 song sufficient to amount to copyright infringement. It awarded more than $7.3 million to Mr. Gaye’s family, who had commenced the action at the time “Blurred Lines” was No. 1 in 2013, given the death of Marvin Gaye in April 1984.

When considering the case, the judge decided to limit the scope to the sheet-music versions of both songs, and not to the sound of the songs’ commercial recordings. Nonetheless, included with evidence given by record executives and music experts, the jury heard aspects of both songs for comparison.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Thicke’s lawyers had argued the similarity between the songs was slight, and had more to do with the evocation of an era and a feeling than the mimicking of specific musical themes that are protected by copyright. However this was not the decision of the jury who decided there were too many similarities between the two songs for this not to amount to copyright infringement, although interestingly, they also said the infringement had not been carried out intentionally. This then leaves a very difficult question for those in the music industry since it is undoubtedly the case that the type of music a composer writes is as a result of music he or she has heard and liked. Should that composer quite innocently write a piece of music unconsciously including an aspect of a tune which he or she has heard before, then that could still amount to copyright infringement and the subsequent costs should a court action be commenced.

Despite this decision it must be stressed that this was under U.S. legislation heard by U.S. judiciary and not U.K. legislation heard by a U.K. Court. The decision is, therefore, only enforceable within the U.S., and whether a similar decision would be likely in the U.K. is far from certain.

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