Copyright Law: Are the Lines Blurred?

Commentary · August 29, 2013

Now in its 11th week as the number one song on Billboard’s Hot 100 list, “Blurred Lines” has sold more than 4.6 million tracks and its video has been viewed more than 137 million times. Raising eyebrows in the entertainment and legal worlds, the song’s authors, Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams and T.I., have reluctantly filed a preemptive lawsuit against Marvin Gaye’s family and Bridgeport Music, the respective copyright owners of “Got to Give it Up” and George Clinton’s “Sexy Ways” to avoid allegations of copyright infringement.

After being approached by the defendants who claimed that “Blurred Lines’” bore an uncanny likeness to the sounds of their copyrighted songs, the plaintiffs filed suit stating that while they “have the utmost respect for and admiration of Marvin Gaye, Funkadelic and their musical legacies,” the plaintiffs “reluctantly file this action in the face of multiple adverse claims from alleged successors in interest to those artists. Defendants continue to insist that plaintiffs’ massively successful composition, “Blurred Lines,” copies ‘their’ compositions.”  Interestingly, George Clinton, who wrote “Sexy Ways” but does not own the copyright to it, has expressed support for the plaintiffs’ arguments.

The suit goes on to state that the basis of the defendants’ claims is that “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up” and “Sexy Ways” “feel” or “sound” the same, and argues that the intent of “Blurred Lines” “was to evoke an era,” which is not a copyright infringement.

The plaintiffs are looking for the courts to declare that “Blurred Lines” does not violate the rights of the defendants, and that the defendants “do not have an interest in the copyright to their songs sufficient to confer standing on them to pursue claims of infringement of that composition.”

While I’m no aficionado of the funk and soul genre, it’s quite easy to hear that “Blurred Lines” shares some stylistic elements with the defendants’ songs. However, the plaintiffs present a sound legal argument, when stating that using those elements does not constitute a copyright infringement. Apparently, the defendants are claiming ownership to a genre of music, as opposed to a specific style.

From a musical perspective, it’s well-established under copyright law that unauthorized sampling, the use of a specific work, no matter how brief, in another recording without the copyright owner’s permission, is not permitted. However, the plaintiffs are arguing that you can’t copyright a genre, and I tend to suspect that the court will agree with them.  However, should the court find in favor of the defendants, artists might find it even more difficult to create new music, where being inspired by another piece of music or sound might be a violation of copyright.

If you have any questions about the information presented here, please contact Robert A. Bertsche, chair of Prince Lobel’s Trademark, Copyright, and Intellectual Property Law Practice Group. You can reach Rob at 617 456 8018 or rbertsche@PrinceLobel.com.