Robin Thicke Verdict Sets a Dangerous Precedent for Creators

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I don’t like Robin Thicke and I’m not a fan of his music. But I’m upset that he lost the recent case against the Marvin Gaye estate for supposed copyright infringement with Blurred Lines. This sets a dangerous precedent for music creators.

Composers and songwriters have been borrowing musical elements from each other since antiquity. Medieval and Renaissance composers wrote polyphonic motets based on well known chants (referred to as cantus firmus). Classical and Romantic composers wrote entire pieces based on themes written by their colleagues. And early rock-and-roll borrowed form and harmony from the 12-bar blues.

That’s why song copyright typically covered just the melody and lyrics. You couldn’t copyright instrumentation, key signatures, chords, chord progressions, tempos, time signatures, or a groove; otherwise composers wouldn’t be able to legally write anything at all. In the case of Blurred Lines only the instrumentation and groove were borrowed from Got To Give It Up. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Joe Bennett, a musicology professor at Bath Spa University in the UK, wrote an excellent article where he analyzes Blurred Lines and Got to Give it Up. Dr. Bennett took the time to notate elements of the two tracks beyond the melody. Here are the bass lines:

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Bass line from Gaye’s Got To Give It Up (transposed to A minor)

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Bass line to Thicke’s, Blurred Lines (also transposed to A minor for easy comparing)

And here are the cowbell patterns:

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Got To Give It Up’s cowbell pattern.

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Blurred Lines’ cowbell pattern.

Even if you can’t read music, the differences are obvious. Blurred Lines did not copy any of the musical phrases exactly. The baselines are similar in “groove” but are not the same. The two cowbell parts share very little as they emphasize different beats within the meter. Neither of these parts constitute the melody or lyrics. But they do however contribute to the groove and feel of their respective tracks. They are not exactly the same but they come together to create similar grooves. But groove could not be copyrightable. Until now perhaps.

If groove is copyrightable then there are going to be many more songs that are in violation. Every pop song written since the 1950s could be infringing. Say goodbye to the 12-bar blues, to funk, to soul, to disco’s four-on-the-floor, and to the rock-n-roll backbeat. Let’s hope that Thicke’s lawyers make a successful appeal. Not for the sake of Blurred Lines, but for the sake of music creators everywhere.

Read Dr. Bennett’s article here.

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