A jury in the United States ruled last month that the writers of the famous ‘Blurred Lines’ single, Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, had copied the Marvin Gaye track ‘Got to Give it Up’. The case has created a wide degree of controversy with the defendant’s lawyer stating that the decision set ‘a horrible precedent’ for the future. But how similar does music have to be to be for a copyright infringement to have occurred? More so, how blurred are the lines that distinguish between inspiration and plagiarism?
When making their decision, the jury had regard to the fundamental elements of US copyright law. Copyright infringement is the violation of the copyright owner’s right through the unauthorised or prohibited use of their copyright material. This extends to ‘works of authorship’ which includes literary works, dramatic works and musical works. An infringement occurs when a copyrighted ‘work of authorship’ is reproduced, distributed or performed in public at any point.
The issue the jury had to decide was whether the elements of ‘Blurred Lines’ were substantially similar to those of ‘Got to Give it Up’. In deciding this, the jury needed to look past the sheet music and into the very ‘feel’ and ‘vibe’ of the songs. As the Court of Appeal stated in Sawkins v Hyperion, ‘The test of substantial reproduction is not a note-by-note textual comparison of the scores. It involves listening to and comparing the sounds of the copyright work and of the infringing work’. In effect therefore, musical copyright can occur without taking into account the actual notes of the score.
Whilst the criticism of the judgement by the defendant’s lawyer could be considered strong, it will be interesting to see where copyright law and music goes from here. The history of music has, to a large extent, been driven by other people’s ideas, and new genres have arisen when artists take elements from an earlier style and employ them in a fresh way. It appears therefore that, for the moment at least, the lines between inspiration and plagiarism have become more blurred than ever before.
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