Copyright, Intellectual Property, Music

That Horrible Robin Thicke Song You’ve Been Listening To May Have Been Ripped Off

You’ve probably heard Robin Thicke’s magnum opus Blurred Lines this summer, whether you wanted to or not. For those who haven’t, ATL would like to welcome you home from your captivity at the hands of the Dread Pirate Roberts.

Blurred Lines is seemingly forced upon every American stepping more than 20 paces from the seclusion of their home. It is what is known as an earworm, too: a piece of music appealing enough on a core psychological level that the listener repeats it to themselves after the fact.

Now the artists behind this “genius” work — Thicke the Younger, Pharrell, and T.I. — have filed for declaratory judgment in federal court to protect their stake in the song from two different camps threatening to sue the trio for ripping off earlier works.

I’ve compiled clips of the allegedly offending (or, I guess, “allegedly non-offending,” given the posture) works. You can judge for yourselves….

I actually think Blurred Lines is incredibly annoying. It’s as though Americans backlashed this summer against last year’s Call Me Maybe.[1] Say what you will about last year’s ubiquitous pop song — and it certainly wasn’t my preferred genre — but it was a cohesive, understandable pop song telling a self-contained story. This year the number two song of the summer, Daft Punk’s Get Lucky (also featuring Pharrell, who is basically the Forrest Gump of musical success right now), just repeats the same lyrics 22 times (not an exaggeration).

Meanwhile, Blurred Lines is this:

Which is about… well, guys saying things while those women dance and Robin Thicke acts like a heartthrob playboy.[2]

The present suit is a response to threats the artists received from some intellectual property holders over perceived violations. Their argument, to borrow from the most famous ballad by Thicke’s father:

You take the good (our work),
You take the bad (all the extra crap in Blurred Lines),
You take them both and there you have,
The basis of a legal action.

One party threatening Blurred Lines is the family of Marvin Gaye, who allege a connection to the song “Got to Give It Up.” For his part, Robin Thicke is willing to acknowledge a creative debt to Marvin Gaye, even if it isn’t a legal debt:

In fact, in a GQ interview in May, Thicke said the song was inspired by “Got to Give It Up’s” funky beat.

“Pharrell and I were in the studio and I told him that one of my favorite songs of all time was Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got to Give It Up,’” Thicke said, according to GQ. “I was like, ‘Damn, we should make something like that, something with that groove.’ Then he started playing a little something and we literally wrote the song in about a half hour and recorded it.”

But inspiration does not a copyright claim make. Otherwise the Gaye children might be suing Bon Jovi over their father’s tender song to their grandfather. Wait for it…

Here’s “Got to Give It Up.” How familiar does it sound?

There are just some vague generalities in this world that don’t get protection under intellectual property law, as Pharrell knows from his suit against over the words “I am.” Barring any direct samples, a copyright claim over a piece of music is an uphill battle, as the L.A. Times notes:

[A] copyright claim could be very difficult for the Gayes and Bridgeport to prove if they had decided to sue, according to Larry Iser, a managing partner at Kinsella Weitzman Iser Kump & Aldisert LLP, who has practiced music law for 30 years.

“Genre and feel is not protected by copyright,” he said. “Unless they can prove substantial similarity in lyric or melody, they’re going to be out of luck.”

And this isn’t like Ice Ice Baby ripping off Under Pressure. Oh wait, that’s not fair, Vanilla Ice explained how those riffs are TOTALLY different.

I can sympathize with an artist’s family. The Gaye family feels a deep connection to the music of their father and a devotion to protecting what they perceive as Gaye’s legacy. Sadly, this connection may cloud their legal judgment and unfortunately we no longer have Marvin Gaye with us to weigh in personally.

Also involved in the suit is Bridgeport Music, suing over a possible link between Blurred Lines and a song by Funkadelic. Bridgeport’s deep connection to Funkadelic’s music consists of an appreciation of money and trolling suits. Bridgeport apparently thinks Blurred Lines is a little to similar to Funkadelic’s “Sexy Ways.” Here’s that song:

Did you hear a connection between that song and Blurred Lines? You know who doesn’t hear that connection?

Unlike the case with “Got to Give It Up,” George Clinton is still around to tell us about his own music, and he doesn’t see a connection. Clinton also doesn’t much care for the business practices of the company that owns the rights to his Funkadelic songs.

As the intellectual-property laws of this country continue to get used and abused by trolls like Prenda and New York State, let’s at least draw a line at copyright claims over songs that merely sound similar as opposed to directly copy. At some point lots of songs in the same genre begin to sound similar, but that does not make them copies.

Unless we’re talking about Katy Perry possibly ripping off Sara Bareilles — I can’t help Katy much on that one.

(The full complaint is reproduced on the next page….)

1. Robin Thicke, like Carly Rae Jepsen, is of Canadian extraction. What’s up with America forfeiting its musical hegemony to the Canucks?
2. Fun fact: Robin Thicke, heartthrob for young girls, is a little less than two years younger than his father was when Growing Pains premiered and Thicke the Elder portrayed the patriarch of a family of five. Morale of the story: Alan Thicke would have seemed a lot sexier if the star who danced to his tunes wasn’t Charlotte Rae.

(hidden for your protection)

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