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Blurred lines: Yet another chapter in the Gaye plagiarism saga


It’s the copyright dispute that just won’t seem to go away: Singer Robin Thicke and producer Pharrell Williams are to appeal the ruling which found them guilty of infringing a work by Marvin Gaye. Meanwhile, a co-copyright owner of another Gaye work is also claiming that singer songwriter Ed Sheeran plagiarised (parts of) Let’s Get it On (1973).

Inspiration is a fickle thing. But, there’s a fine line between being inspired by the look and feel of a song, and copying actual lyrics, or notes, or sequences. That was the riddle facing the LA jury in the high-profile dispute between the heirs of Marvin Gaye and Blurred Lines co-writers Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke in 2015. That jury eventually came down in Gaye’s favour, finding Williams and Thicke guilty of unwillingly stealing from Gaye’s 1977 hit Got to Give it Up and ordering them to pay his estate US$7.4 million.

Thicke and Williams have since decided to appeal the ruling, on the grounds that the melodies of the two tracks are actually dissimilar - and that the jury had been wrongly swayed by the similarity in ‘feeling’ or ‘groove’ between the two tracks. Unsurprisingly, this action is supported by many big names in the music world, many of whom believe that the original ruling will have a ‘chilling effect’ on artistic freedom.

More than 200 musicians have signed an ‘artistic brief’ in favour of the appeal, which states: “All music shares inspiration from prior musical works, especially within a particular musical genre. By eliminating any meaningful standard for drawing the line between permissible inspiration and unlawful copying, the judgment is certain to stifle creativity and impede the creative process.” It is now for the higher court to decide.

A ripple effect?
From the Blurred Lines dispute to the Stairway to Heaven guitar riff it seems that hardly a week goes by without another music IP case hitting the headlines. But, does this mark an increase in actual ‘copying’, or is it just a indication of the high amounts of money at stake once a pop group or pop song becomes successful?

Recently, British singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran also crossed legal swords with one of Marvin Gaye’s co-writers, Ed Townsend, over claims Sheeran had infringed Let's Get It On with his song Thinking Out Loud. In particular, similarity between the drum compositions have been questioned. It is yet to be seen whether this case will hit the courts. Sheeran is also being sued by two US songwriters over his track Photograph, suggesting that copyright infringement cases - rightly or wrongly - are now part and parcel of being a successful recording artist.

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