Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke will have to pay legendary soul musician Marvin Gaye's kids $7.3 million for ripping off Gaye in their creepy 2013 bro-summer jam "Blurred Lines," a jury decided yesterday.
Whatever your feelings about Gaye, Williams, or Thicke, the verdict is not a great thing for artists, copyright experts say.
The case began last year when the songwriters preemptively sued the Gaye family for making an invalid copyright claim after the family claimed that "Blurred Lines" copied the feel of Gaye's 1977 hit "Got to Give It Up". That turned out to be a really bad idea, since the Gaye kids counter-sued, claiming that "Blurred Lines" infringed on the family's copyright on Gaye's original composition. Because the song was released in 1977, just before the Copyright Act of 1976 came into effect in 1978, the jury had to refer to copyright law from 1909 to address a song that came out in the 21st century.
After a lengthy court case—and it isn't over, since the verdict can still be appealed and the damages negotiated—a jury decided that the Gayes were in the right, and that Williams and Thick did infringe on the Gaye family's copyright.
The verdict might be seen as a victory by lovers of Gaye's music, but according to Parker Higgins, the director of copyright activism for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, it's yet another example of how copyright is used to constrain artistic expression.
"All creativity builds on the past somehow, and copyright informs the way that we're allowed to build on the past," Higgins said. "When you're afraid that the hammer might come down on you for not building on the past in the right way, then that's creative expression that might just not be made."
"If you have to hide your inspiration, then we'll end up with work that sounds, frankly, uninspired," he continued.
Since the court case is likely months or even years away from being ultimately settled, there's no telling what kind of legal precedent this will set. But regardless, Higgins believes that this is yet another example of how copyright is wielded to put a stop to various kinds of expression—whether that's free speech, in the case of the misguided dentist who tried to copyright her patients' Yelp reviews, or the freedom to make a bad song that sort of sounds like someone else's much better song.
"The damages are so astronomically high, where $7.3 million seems punitive for someone writing a song," Higgins said. "The other thing is the specter of 'copyright creep'—that copyright is expanding without changes in the law to cover things it wasn't meant to cover."
Regardless of whose back you've got in the legal battle—the Gaye family or the songwriting team of Pharrell and Thicke—we're talking about a law that could affect any number of people in the future. And if that law is broad enough to stymie artistic expression no matter how lackluster, as Higgins said, then maybe those lines should be made just a little less blurry.
Oh, and here's a video of Marvin Gaye chilling in sweats and laying down the love with ease to help us all chill out in the meantime: