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Jury rules Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams stole "Blurred Lines." Here's what that means.

Robin Thicke with his former wife Paula
Robin Thicke with his former wife Paula
Getty
  1. Pharrell Williams, T.I., and Robin Thicke lost a lawsuit against Marvin Gaye's family and will have to pay out $7.3 million, the AP reports.
  2. The verdict concludes a more than yearlong trial between Williams, Thicke, and the Gaye family over 2013's monster hit "Blurred Lines." The Gayes had originally sought $25 million in damages.
  3. The Gaye family believes Thicke copied more than one song from the late singer, including the 1977 hit "After the Dance."
  4. Throughout the suit, many major revelations were made, including Thicke's admission that he had been heavily abusing drugs at the time "Blurred Lines" was written and skyrocketed to fame.

The jury found Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke liable

After Robin Thicke's hit "Blurred Lines" permeated American popular culture in the summer of 2013, questions were raised about the originality of the song, particularly the composition in the background and the rhythm section. The Gaye estate, which represents the late Marvin Gaye's two children, Frankie and Nona, threatened to sue Thicke for his song on the grounds that it sounded too similar to Gaye's 1977 hit "Got to Give It Up."

Thicke, Pharrell, and T.I. responded to the threats by preemptively suing the Gaye estate. At the time, Thicke's lawyer said that "the intent in producing 'Blurred Lines' was to evoke an era," and that the Gaye family was "claiming ownership of an entire genre, as opposed to a specific work, and Bridgeport is claiming the same work."

Thicke, though, had already made some key mistakes. He told GQ in a May 2013 article that "Got to Give It Up" was one of his favorite songs. The Gaye family, of course, cited this as evidence that Thicke had stolen the song.

By April 2014, Thicke had adjusted his story. He claimed he was high on Vicodin and had very little to do with the writing or creation of "Blurred Lines."

As the trial progressed, damages experts found that "Blurred Lines" had generated almost $17 million in profit as a performance, with $5,658,214 going to Thicke, $5,153,457 to Williams, and $704,774 to T.I., according to testimony in the proceedings as reported by the Hollywood Reporter.

During opening argument for the trial, the attorney representing the Gayes tallied the damages at approximately $40 million. The jury awarded the family $7.3 million.

Here's how similar the two songs sound

Here's Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines" from 2013:

And here's Marvin Gaye's 1977 hit "Got to Give it Up":


How could a song be stolen if it had different lyrics?

Every single song in the world has two distinct copyrights — one for the performance and one for the song itself. Here's how those sides stack up:

  • Sound recording: This is the license needed for the actual song played. This license is usually between the artist, the record label that represents them, and the company trying to play the song.
  • Musical composition: This is the license that covers everything else, including the people who wrote the song, and anyone who manipulates the composition of the song. This license gets paid no matter who sings the song. So if an artist covers a song, the people who made that song possible (i.e. the songwriters) still get paid.

In this case, the Gaye family argued Thicke had stolen the musical composition. That means that Gaye's voice, the percussion, and the backing vocalists could not be considered in this trial. Only the music of the song that Gaye originally wrote could be considered.

Basically, the sheet music was what was at stake here. The family couldn't play the recordings side-by-side in the trial because the judge worried that the performances of the songs might sway the jury. Eventually, the Gaye family was allowed to play a stripped-down version of the song for the jury.

Does this happen often?

Yes. Overlaps in music happen fairly often. Just this year Tom Petty hinted to Sam Smith that he was considering suing for similarities between Smith's "Stay with Me" and Petty's "Won't Back Down." This case, probably because Smith is a young artist with a lot to lose, settled amicably out of court with Smith just adding Petty to the songwriting credits and promising him a percent of the money made.

That's just one highly publicized case. The reality is that it's fairly easy to make songs that sound like other songs and make other artists upset because they feel like their art is being capitalized on. The other reality is that "Blurred Lines" has more than just rhythm in common with "Got to Give it Up."

screencap

A screenshot from the "Blurred Lines" video

Will this impact Thicke and Williams' careers at all?

Robin Thicke had already largely destroyed his career. Because of aggressive, domineering lyrics like "I know you want it," many saw "Blurred Lines" as a proponent of rape culture.

Tricia Romano at The Daily Beast described the song itself as "rape-y." Twenty universities in the United Kingdom banned the song from their campuses for its sexual politics. At Pacific Standard, Sezin Koehler matched the lyrics with the words of rapists. Just the song and video alone raised concerns, but then Thicke performed with bikini-clad 20-year-old Miley Cyrus at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, and the circus of criticism became unmanageable.

After all the controversy was over, Thicke's wife, Paula Patton, divorced him and he released a sappy, somewhat creepy album to try and win her back. The album was reviewed poorly and sold even worse.

For Pharrell Williams, the charge should have less impact. Williams is one of the most prolific producers and writers working in the industry right now. Most Americans know him for his mega-hit "Happy," but Williams has been writing famous hits for years.

As a producer, Williams has made albums for Frank Ocean, Miley Cyrus, 2 Chainz, Nelly, Ed Sheeran, and Gwen Stefani. As a writer, he's created dozens of hits and guest starred on more than 30 singles. Williams is a prolific member of the music community. It's very unlikely that one lawsuit over one song will have much impact on the writing credits he's able to get in the next year.

How will this change the music industry?

"While we respect the judicial process, we are extremely disappointed in the ruling made today, which sets a horrible precedent for music and creativity going forward," a rep for Williams told Billboard in a statement. "Pharrell created 'Blurred Lines' from his heart, mind and soul and the song was not taken from anyone or anywhere else."

On one hand, Williams's representative is right — the two songs are different songs. The sheet music is different, and though there are definite similarities between the two that are pretty undeniable, "Blurred Lines" isn't a direct copy. On sheet music, they hardly look similar. The same, of course, can't be said for the sound, but there's a difference between lifting the work of someone else and the existence of similarities.

But Williams's representative is reaching to say this will impact the music industry in any kind of wide-sweeping way. The only reason this case even stood a chance is that juries often rule with their hearts, and Thicke and Williams had both admitted to the press that they loved Gaye's song and were influenced by it. Disagreements such as this one happen all the time, but rarely make it to court because it's rare for artists to dig themselves so deep a hole.

In all likelihood, this ruling won't change the music industry. This is not a massive change to copyright law or an attempt to change the way musicians create work. This isn't one domino in a line of rapidly falling ones. It's a single civil case.

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