How The 'Blurred Lines' Case Could Have Chilling Effect On Creativity

How The 'Blurred Lines' Case Could Have Chilling Effect On Creativity

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The weeklong trial has featured pop singer Robin Thicke sidling up to a piano to play songs by U2, the Beatles and Michael Jackson. Superstar producer Pharrell Williams attempted under oath to parse the difference between vibe and theft.

Testimony in the Los Angeles federal court proceeding seeking to determine whether Thicke’s groove-heavy, cowbell-driven 2013 pop hit “Blurred Lines” infringed on Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up” has been nothing if not entertaining.

But let’s not mince words: The lawsuit being litigated against Thicke, producer-songwriter Williams, rapper T.I. and their song is about cash, not artistic theft. If it hadn’t hit big on the charts, no lawsuit.

Specifically, the case is mostly about Thicke’s ill-advised reference to Gaye’s song during interviews and the bid by Gaye’s estate and publishers to take advantage of the fuzzy line between inspiration and infringement, and monetize it.

Regardless of the ultimate verdict, the suit could have a chilling effect on creators, especially in an era when most every song in recorded music history can be accessed in seconds. What artist will acknowledge specific inspiration when it could be used as evidence in a copyright infringement suit?

“Feel but not infringement,” Williams said on the stand of the differences between his track and “Got to Give It Up,” which showcases Gaye’s inimitable falsetto and disco-inspired rhythm. “I must’ve been channeling that feeling, that late-’70s feeling,” he added. The Gaye estate, wrote Williams’ legal team, is “claiming ownership of an entire genre, as opposed to a specific work.”

Thicke even distanced himself from having much of a role in the creation of his biggest hit, claiming to be “high on Vicodin and alcohol” when he arrived at Glenwood Place Studios in Burbank.

That’s quite the admission, considering the track was one of the biggest of 2013. Before “Blurred Lines,” Thicke was a notable purveyor of blue-eyed soul. His work with Pharrell, one of most successful hitmakers of the past decade, helped make Thicke a household name and a earned him a sit-down with Oprah Winfrey.

By the time the final arguments were delivered Thursday and the case sent to the jury, questions about the creative process and the art of the song had been explored in detail. In an attempt to define boundaries of expression and composition that have been historically — and rightly — vague, jurors were fed details on the legalities of inspiration. Those issues are the meatiest to contemplate because to these ears, a side-by-side comparison of the songs in question reveals profound similarities in feel but hardly egregious and obvious enough to earn the Gaye estate a payout.

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