Copied Lines?

Back in June, when “Blurred Lines” first hit #1 on the Billboard charts, which it still tops 17 weeks later, Robin Thicke was happy to tell anyone who asked that the song was his attempt to capture the vibe of his favorite song, Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.”

Last Thursday, as posted by The Hollywood Reporter (thanks for the tip, Matt), attorneys for Pharrell Wiliiams, Robin Thicke and Clifford Harris Jr (AKA TI) filed suit against the Marvin Gaye estate’s claim that Thicke borrowed too directly from his favorite song:

The basis of the Gaye defendants’ claims is that ‘Blurred Lines’ and ‘Got To Give It Up’ ‘feel’ or ‘sound’ the same. Being reminiscent of a ‘sound’ is not copyright infringement. The intent in producing ‘Blurred Lines’ was to evoke an era. In reality, the Gaye defendants are claiming ownership of an entire genre, as opposed to a specific work, and Bridgeport is claiming the same work.”

(Thicke et al are also suing Bridgepost Music, Inc., which claims they copied Funkadelic’s “Sexy Ways.”*)

I never listened to the two songs back to back before today, but now that I have, I realize that “Blurred Lines” does not straight up sample Gaye’s hit as I had always assumed.  However, it certainly reproduces, though speeds up, its rhythm track.  And “everybody get up” scans as very similar to “got to give it up.”

It just so happens that I have been reading Nile Rodgers’s autobiography, Le Freak, which includes Chic’s lawsuit to get their due credit for Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight.”  In those pre-sampling days, a studio band recorded the backing track, but it was very clearly playing “Good Times.”  Chic won the lawsuit and received co-writing credit and royalties.

However, that case was based on a stolen melody.  U.S. copyright laws are based on European standards of music that privilege melody and harmony.  This might make sense for so-called serious music like classical, but less so for pop music which owes far more to African and African-American traditions grounded in rhythm.  This leads to paradoxes like Bo Diddley not being entitled to a penny of royalties for other artists’ songs featuring the “Bo Diddley beat.”

Now I am not a musician, music theorist or copyright lawyer, but it seems to this layman’s ears that “Blurred Lines” rips off “Got to Give It Up”‘s rhythm, but not its melody.  This becomes evident if you listen to the “Bee’s Knees Remix”:

This is still clearly “Blurred Lines,” but it loses almost all similarity with “Got to Give It Up” when the new Chic-like “chucking” rhythm track is substituted.

So what this whole case really comes down to is a recurring question in regard to pop music:  Where is the line between copying and being inspired by, between plagiarism and homage?  That can be a very blurred line indeed.

On a side note, one of the more bizarre copyright infringement cases came when Saul Zaentz sued John Fogerty for copying himself.  Zaentz claimed Fogerty’s “Old Man Down the Road” plagiarized a song he wrote for his former band Creedence Clearwater Revival, “Run Through the Jungle,” for which Zaentz still held the publishing.  The judge ruled an artist cannot plagiarize himself.

*  Not even George Clinton, who co-wrote “Sexy Ways,” believes Bridgeport has a claim:

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