Why the "Blurred Lines" Ruling Sets an Extremely Dangerous Precedent

"Blurred Lines" single cover art - Universal/Interscope/Star Trak
Universal/Interscope/Star Trak
"Blurred Lines" single cover art

On Tuesday a Los Angeles jury awarded $7.3 million to the family of Marvin Gaye owing to the similarity between Gaye's "Got to Give It Up" and Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines." In the courtroom, Thicke and producer Pharrell Williams both defended their song's originality and acknowledged the reference to Gaye's track.

A jury of their peers found in favor of Gaye's family, and that decision is, for lack of a more eloquent term, complete and utter bullshit.

See also: Thicke on Thicke: Alan Thicke Talks About His Son Robin Thicke

I don't particularly care for "Blurred Lines," and I have yet to go through my old-school R&B phase to be familiar enough with Gaye's track beyond the numerous comparison videos that exist on the Youtubes. The likenesses are hard to ignore; the auxiliary percussion, the bass line, the guitar chords hitting on the offbeat. But the vocal melody is different, the chord progression is different, and the feel is augmented by a drastic hit on the "and" of 4.

While implementing these changes to duck the copyright might be in poor taste, it isn't illegal. Bill Cosby has as much of a case saying the "Hey hey hey" in "Blurred Lines" rips off Fat Albert's catchphrase, although it's probably smart for him to distance himself from a song commonly described as "rapey."

After reading transcripts of the case, it's hard for me to not feel like a jury punished Williams and Thicke because they either don't like them or don't like their song. Thicke reportedly played an ill-advised medley on keyboard as an example of how commonplace it is for songs to borrow similar elements, and he admitted to being drunk when he had reportedly said the song is a ripoff. Pharrell's defenses in court seemed to be of the are-you-freaking-kidding-me variety. His roots are in hip-hop, a genre that's constantly battling between copyright infringement and fair use. And he's enough of a pro to know when his work has crossed a line -- blurred though it may be.

Granted, the whole pre-emptive lawsuit by Thicke to hush up Gaye's family was a dumb move, and it probably gave them more than enough incentive to try to squeeze every possible penny from "Blurred Lines." It doesn't matter to me if rich people have to give money to other rich people. And let's be realistic: The royalties for "Let's Get It On" alone have probably set Marvin Gaye's family up for life.

What irks me is the precedent this could set. This is a lawsuit based on a feel. There are entire genres based around feels; are the Skatalites supposed to sue every traditional ska band now? Apparently, if they do so in Los Angeles, they might just win -- if the defendant is unlikeable enough.

What is bothersome to me in a less-hypothetical sense are the mindlessly pro-Gaye reactions clouding the blogs and Facebook walls. These typically come from the same crowd that refuses to accept any artistic motives of Kanye West because he's Kanye West. The most annoying so far is from jazz trumpet player Nicholas Payton's "Open Letter To Pharrell Williams" that bashes him while saying antiquated things like "hip-hop is a parasitic culture that preys on real musicians for its livelihood." However, "real musicians" like Payton should be scared shitless. Under the pretense of this ruling, the families of dead jazz musicians might sue him or any other jazz musician for infringing a swing feel.

As weirded out as I am by this ruling, it could lead to some good. Perhaps we're due for a crackdown on barely copyright-free songs you hear in the background of commercials and TV shows. People in charge of music for these outlets frequently send composers a song and say "make a version of this we won't get sued for." That's why you hear so many knockoffs of Phoenix's "Lisztomania" behind McDonald's ads and Bravo reality shows. (There's a certain rip of "New Noise" by Refused that shows up during tense moments on Food Network's Chopped that I'd love to see thrown under the bus.)

If there's a possibility for appeal, I hope this decision is reversed. Not because I want Pharrell and Thicke to have justice or keep their money. I don't care about them. At all. There's enough industry evil as it is; we don't need musical-copyright trolls piggybacking off the court's decision in Gaye vs. Williams/Thicke for their own gain. Making music is hard enough; doing so and feeling safe about your creation is even harder.

People are trying to turn this ruling into this month's Beyonce vs. Beck, an abstract case of real artists (e.g. Gaye) versus fake artists (e.g. Thicke). In reality, it is people who understand the intricacies of creating art in this 21st century versus people who have no idea.


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