The “Blurred Lines” Between Influence and Copying

On March 10th a jury in Los Angeles ordered songwriters Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke to pay $7.3 million to the family of Marvin Gaye. The jury found that Williams and Thicke’s hit song, “Blurred Lines”, infringed on the copyright of Gaye’s 1977 song “Got to Give It Up.” While Thicke and Williams have previously acknowledged Gaye’s influence on “Blurred Lines”, both have denied any intentional copying.

This is not the first case in which a popular song has been put on trial for copyright infringement. Past defendants include Radiohead, The Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Avril Lavigne, Coldplay, Johnny Cash, George Harrison, Rod Stewart, and The Flaming Lips. In one peculiar case, former Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty was sued for writing a song that sounded too much like one he wrote for his old group.

Popular music makes such heavy use of the same chords, bass licks and drum fills it is a wonder that sound-alikes aren’t more common. The line between influence and outright copying is also blurred; mash-up videos featuring similar sounding songs are widely available online, usually accompanied by arguments that this or that artist ripped off another. Ultimately, all popular music is derivative, and the difference between copying and influence is one only of degree.

The practice of granting monopolies in the form of copyrights on certain combinations of sounds is problematic. Copyrights restrict freedom of expression, increase the cost of creative works and allow people to live for decades off the works of their ancestors at the expense of the general public. Marvin Gaye was a phenomenal singer, composer, producer and instrumentalist. His murder is undeniably one of the great tragedies of American music. This does not justify his descendants having a monopoly on the bass lines he used 38 years ago.

In addition to the multimillion dollar fine, Gaye family attorney Richard Busch hopes to halt sales of “Blurred Lines.” While it is hard to defend a song that has been accused of trivializing sexual consent, forcibly halting its sales is a clear violation of free expression. Marvin Gaye’s legacy as a great American musician has not been compromised by lesser musicians imitating or even copying his works. If anything, the popularity of “Blurred Lines” has likely led to an increased interest in Gaye’s music among younger listeners.

Allowing musicians to freely borrow from older works maximizes creative freedom and keeps the older works relevant. Copyrights are becoming less enforceable. The internet makes the free exchange of information so convenient that the state lacks power to do anything about it. Enforcing copyrights will continue to require more intrusive, expensive, and draconian action from the state.

Forward looking groups like Radiohead and Death Grips have adapted to the new climate by making releases available at prices dictated by the consumer. Creative content industries are now at a crossroads where they will be forced to adapt to the free flow of information they once controlled. Let’s hope this newfound freedom of information will be a path to creative liberation.

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