The "Blurred Lines" Verdict Is Bad News, Even If You Hate Robin Thicke

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Thanks to the decision of a Los Angeles jury yesterday afternoon, pop-music fans have a fun, frightening new game to play: Who's Next? No, not named after the Who album—though maybe its infamous pissing-on-the-wall cover shot might now inspire a lawsuit from Andrew Loog Oldham, who as the Rolling Stones' manager spread the rumor that his charges had urinated all over a gas station after the attendant wouldn't let Mick, Keith and co. use a restroom. So maybe instead, let's call it Who's Suing Who—hell, maybe the Who themselves will sue Pearl Jam, or Guided by Voices, or anyone else whose windmilled power chords sound a little too familiar.

The improbably sympathetic victim here is Robin Thicke, whose 2013 smash "Blurred Lines"—co-written (or entirely written, as Thicke conceded in a wildly embarrassing pretrial deposition) by Pharrell Williams—will cost the pair $7.3 million in damages for willfully infringing upon Marvin Gaye's 1977 no. 1 hit "Got to Give It Up." If that amount seems exorbitant—and it is—consider that the Gaye estate had originally asked for some $25 million, including $11 million in Thicke tour proceeds following the record's success.


The irony is that the suit, which first popped up in August 2013, was initiated not by Nona, Frankie, and Marvin Gaye III, who own their father's copyrights, but by the "Blurred Lines" songwriters—including T.I., whose guest verse escaped legal consequences—as a sort of preemptive defensive strike against the Gaye family, as well as the copyright holders of Funkadelic's "Sexy Ways," which that song's publisher, Bridgeport Music, claimed was sampled. (Funkadelic leader George Clinton, who inveighs at length against Bridgeport in his recently published memoir, tweeted his support for Robin and Pharrell.)

The idea that "Blurred Lines" somehow caused the Gaye family any financial hardship is absurd on its face—as if purchasing Thicke's song somehow stopped anyone from checking out "Got to Give It Up" as well or instead. In fact, the opposite occurred—the suit brought so much renewed attention to Gaye's song that its sales nearly doubled during the trial.

Even if the estate's alarming victory doesn't extend a song's copyright from composition of music and lyrics to production quality and "feel"—the judge specifically rejected the latter argument before the case went to trial, leaving the case to be decided entirely by a sheet-music comparison— the verdict is still nefarious. For all their similarities, "Blurred Lines" differs substantially and audibly from "Got to Give It Up" in both melody and lyrics—even lyrical topic, unless you happen to think all songs about dancing are the same. Even the singers themselves come off as very different animals: Gaye is a wallflower, Thicke an up-for-it horndog.


Of course, in the latter case, that's what a lot of people disliked about "Blurred Lines" to begin with. For many, Thicke was a new name, though he'd been making R&B hits for years by that point; the song led off his sixth album. The video, featuring three essentially nude female models (and a goat) cavorting among three fully clothed men, fanned the flames of accusations that the lyrics—specifically, the refrain "I know you want it"—condoned rape. Even if your thinking didn't go that far, the song came off as the work of a man with a profound staring problem, and for many, it left Thicke, whose subsequent musical adventures have been poorly received, teed up for some righteous karmic retribution.

So naturally, when yesterday's verdict was announced, the "LOL, fuck Robin Thicke" tweets kicked up in no time. (Good thing that Marvin Gaye, the sainted author of "You Sure Love to Ball" and "Masochistic Beauty," never recorded anything skeevy.) I encourage vocal fans of this verdict to demonstrate their solidarity by deleting and/or destroying every piece of music they own featuring an unlicensed sample or bearing a notable resemblance to an earlier piece of music. But they won't, and they shouldn't, because that would entail deleting just about everything. Even if you loathe Thicke, this is no cause for celebration, because the size of the Gaye estate's bounty is only going to encourage more lawsuits like this one.

Immediately tiresome as the "LOL Thicke" meme is, the "Maybe this will encourage musicians to be creative again" one is stupider, because pop music is often most creative—and exciting—when its makers are in dialogue with one another. If the '60s, for example, were such a locus of nonstop originality, why did a classic single like the Knickerbockers' "Lies" sound so much like John Lennon circa Help!? Flat-out Dylan imitation was the coin of the realm—not just in a great one-shot like Mouse's "A Public Execution," but the Rolling Stones' "Jigsaw Puzzle" or even the Four Tops' "Bernadette," which Phil Spector once called "a black man singing Bob Dylan." As Dave Marsh points out in The Heart of Rock and Soul, "When Levi Stubbs sings, 'They pre-tend to be my friend,' his cadence is as unmistakably Dylanesque as anything that ever came from the mouths of the Byrds or Manfred Mann."

Obviously not all such musical dialogue is healthy. Last November, an Internet joker calling himself Sir Mashalot put together a YouTube clip he dubbed "Mind-Blowing SIX Song Country Mashup!", laying tracks by Blake Shelton, Luke Bryan, Cole Swindell, Parmalee, Florida-Georgia Line, and Chase Rice atop each other in crisscrossing layers like lasagna, or plaid. Modern country stars could use this verdict as the impetus to spend the rest of their careers suing each other; as this delightful 2009 mashup proved, Nickelback might consider suing themselves.


But that kind of borrowing and rewriting is pop's lifeblood. Here's Lester Bangs, writing in 1979:

According to one theory, punk rock all goes back to Ritchie Valens's "La Bamba." Just consider Valens's three-chord mariachi squawk up in the light of "Louie Louie" by the Kingsmen, then consider "Louie Louie" in the light of "You Really Got Me" by the Kinks, then "You Really Got Me" in the light of "No Fun" by the Stooges, then "No Fun" in the light of "Blitzkrieg Bop" by the Ramones, and finally note that "Blitzkrieg Bop" sounds a lot like "La Bamba."


Push that theory into the '90s, and you can throw in Nirvana's "Smells Like Teen Spirit," too—which, as Rolling Stone once noted, refried the riff from "More Than a Feeling." Will Boston founder Tom Scholz be suing the Kurt Cobain estate now, too? Will Tom Petty, who could probably sue several modern country stars himself, and who earned a retroactive songwriting credit for Sam Smith's "Stay With Me" earlier this year, spend the rest of his career cashing similar checks from, say, the Strokes? (Petty's longtime keyboardist, Benmont Tench, publicly disagreed with the verdict yesterday: "I think they took production & arrangement ideas but not the actual song.")

That's what I mean by Who's Suing Who? The possibilities are endless—and many portend chilling things. Think of Bruno Mars alone: Might the Police sue over his solo smash "Locked Out of Heaven"? Would Norman Whitfield have a case against Cee Lo's "Fuck You," a Mars co-write? How about this year's Mark Ronson No. 1 "Uptown Funk"—any number of post-disco funk bands might go for a piece of that one now, even though it bears a general resemblance to many and a close one to few. (Nona Gaye, incidentally, used to work with Prince; one wonders if she'd have encouraged James Brown to sue the Purple One over "Housequake," or the Marc Bolan estate to cite infringement over "Cream.")


It's especially troubling given how tight copyright control has gotten. Prior to 1976, a copyright was good for 28 years, with the possibility of another 28-year extension, before a work became public domain. That allowed for wider, freer dissemination of music, literature, and film that had fallen out of copyright—and in some cases allowed various works to find a wider audience than they'd had the first time. (The most obvious example: It's a Wonderful Life.) But in 1976, copyrights were extended to the author's lifetime plus 50 years, and in 1998, another extension, dubbed the Sonny Bono Act (he was an early proponent), gave copyright holders the rights to a work for up to 120 years. One of that bill's primary sponsors was the Walt Disney Company, which—irony of ironies—made much of its fortune by adapting public-domain fairy tales to the big screen, then slapping a circle-C on them so that no one could take them back the way they themselves had done.

It isn't just musicians who seem more vulnerable now, either: Movie and TV directors pay homage to classic works as a matter of course. It's hard to imagine Martin Scorsese taking someone to court for mimicking one of his trademark tracking shots, or Steven Spielberg taking umbrage at someone else's intricately patterned action sequence. But the possibility for something like that to happen—by the directors themselves or by their heirs—exists now to a degree that it didn't yesterday. Moreover, it now seems less like an "if" now than a "when."


Michaelangelo Matos is the author of the forthcoming The Underground Is Massive: How Electronic Dance Music Conquered America (Dey Street Books, April 2015) and contributes to Rolling Stone, NPR, Red Bull Music Academy Magazine, and more. He lives in Brooklyn.

Photo by Getty.

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