Blurred Lines Between Homage and Plagiarism in Copyright Case

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Jeffrey Johnson is a legal writer with a focus on personal injury. He has worked on personal injury and sovereign immunity litigation in addition to experience in family, estate, and criminal law. He earned a J.D. from the University of Baltimore and has worked in legal offices and non-profits in Maryland, Texas, and North Carolina. He has also earned an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman Univer...

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UPDATED: Jul 16, 2021

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Gavel Smashing CDAs reported by the New York Times, it can be difficult to draw the line between homage and plagiarism when it comes to music.

In a federal court case in Los Angeles, the family of the late Marvin Gaye has prevailed in a lawsuit accusing the co-writers of the song “Blurred Lines” of infringing Gaye’s rights in his 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up.” 

The defendants are Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and the rapper Clifford “T.I.” Harris.

Top of the Charts

“Blurred Lines” was the best-selling single in the world in 2013 and has sold 7.3 million copies in the US. The YouTube video has been played hundreds of millions of times.

The lawyer for the Gaye family initially claimed that the song had earned at least $30 million in profits. During the trial, the parties stipulated that it had actually earned just under $17 million.

Thicke and Williams earned more than $5 million in royalties, and T.I. earned about $704,000 for the one verse he performed.

As reported by the Times:

Testimony and a flurry of pretrial documents have revealed lurid details of drugs, unearned songwriting credits, and intentional deception of the news media employed as a standard promotional practice.

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Degrading to women?

Controversy surrounding the song also focused on its message, which some claim is misogynistic and promotes date rape. The song has been banned at some universities and other institutions.

Thicke told GQ Magazine:

We tried to do everything that was taboo. Bestiality, drug injections, and everything that is completely derogatory towards women. Because all three of us are happily married with children, we were like, ‘We’re the perfect guys to make fun of this.’ People say, ‘Hey, do you think this is degrading to women?’ I’m like, ‘Of course it is. What a pleasure it is to degrade a woman. I’ve never gotten to do that before. I’ve always respected women.’

Thicke later told Oprah Winfrey that was a bad joke.

Thicke gave interviews stating that he was influenced by Gaye, and told GQ that “Got to Give it Up” was one of his favorite songs.

However, Thicke later admitted that he hadn’t actually written the song that he’s credited on, and that it was mostly written by Williams.

Thicke stated during depositions that he was drunk or high during the interviews in which he claimed to have written the song with Williams.

He performed the song in court, as part of his testimony, and also played songs by the Beatles, Michael Jackson, and U2 to show how easy it is to make one song sound like others.

A musicologist called as an expert witness by the defendants said that she examined the two songs without knowing what her clients wanted her to decide, and concluded that the two songs were “really different.”

Copyright infringement cases are very common in the entertainment industry, especially where hit songs and movies are involved. According to a music lawyer quoted by the Times, “There is an old saying in the music business that if you get a hit, you will get a writ.”

Most such cases are dismissed, or settle, long before trial, but that did not happen in this case.

If you believe your intellectual property rights in a song may have been infringed, or if you’ve been accused of infringement, you may wish to consult a copyright lawyer.

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