Recently, U.S. District Court Judge John Kronstadt denied the summary judgment motion of Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams which sought to put an end to the question of whether their song “Blurred Lines” lifted enough elements of Marvin Gaye’s classic “Got to Give It Up” so as to constitute copyright infringement. The Court found that Gaye’s estate made a sufficient showing that elements of “Blurred Lines” may be substantially similar to the prior song, meaning the lawsuit presses forward to either settlement or trial in the in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.
Here’s a nice (and safe) comparison of the two songs:
What the untrained ear finds is an arguably similar sound, but a lack of overlapping lyrics. Is that enough to support a copyright infringement claim?
To prevail on a copyright infringement claim, the holder must demonstrate that some elements of the protected work were implemented in the second work without permission. Or in other words, that the second work copied the first work. The copyright holder can prove copying through direct evidence, such as Xeroxed lyric sheets, or through circumstantial evidence such as access to the copyrighted work or the similarities of the works. For those interested, the American Bar Association has a nice overview of copyright infringement.
Assuming that Gaye’s estate did not have video evidence of Thicke and Pharrell copying “Got to Give It Up,” the lawyers had to go through the more common route of providing the Court with enough circumstantial evidence of impermissible copying to create a genuine dispute of fact at summary judgment. As noted above, the songs sound alike but aren’t identical.
A boon for the estate came, however, when Thicke publically acknowledged Gaye’s song as an inspiration for “Blurred Lines” in a GQ Magazine interview last year:
Pharrell and I were in the studio and I told him that one of my favorite songs of all time was Marvin Gaye’s Got to Give It Up. I was like, ‘Damn, we should make something like that, something with that groove.’
Whoopsie. While Gaye’s estate defeated summary judgment, it remains to be seen whether judge or jury will agree that “Blurred Lines” actually infringed on the copyright at trial. Of course we may never see that day, as Thicke and Pharrell may follow down the path of Sony, which was also sued by Gaye’s estate but opted to settle out of court.