Does The Marvin Gaye Estate Have A Blurred Vision of Copyright Ownership?

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American Songwriter:  Andy Lykens

The interesting thing about copyright infringement is that it escalates. In reality, a case should be pretty cut and dry, and you should be able to tick off a number of boxes in a checklist to determine whether something constitutes infringement or not.

But because of what infringement implies, there is so much more that goes into a legal battle involving intellectual property. Lots of people are afraid of it these days but usually not for something like this – a plain ol’ case of “you stole my music.”

In case you’re unfamiliar, Marvin Gaye’s estate is currently suing Robin Thicke, claiming he borrowed a bit too heavily from Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” in his gigantic hit, “Blurred Lines.”

What makes this case interesting is from an outsider’s perspective you can tell there is just a lot of bad blood between MG’s estate and Robin Thicke’s troop. It started earlier this summer when Thicke preemptively sued the Marvin Gaye estate to try and secure indefinite protection from further legal hassles with the upset family members.

Now, after having gone back and forth in the press a lot this summer, Gaye’s estate has decided to come out swingin’ (and not like Sinatra).

Gaye’s family’s big argument will be centered around an interview with GQ where Thicke happened to mention Marvin Gaye in the same sentence while describing his writing process.

Oops.

They also had a musicologist compare the two works and he has stated that “Blurred Lines” blurred the line between ‘evoking an era’ and ‘stealing.’

But what exactly can you copyright?  Let’s take a look and maybe we can figure out if this is just a case of people getting a little too grumpy, or if there is a justifiable reason to believe Robin robbed Mr. Gaye.

What Is Actually Protected?

A song is a complete musical work – chords, lyrics (if there are any), melodies and titles all tied up with a pretty bow on top.

Copyright infringement usually takes place when you outright mimic a combination of those elements.

You can’t copyright a title on its own, a general sound, drum beats or chord changes. However, you can obviously not create an instrumental version of a song with words and claim it’s a new work.

What is similar about the two songs?

For me, the commonalties are the cowbell, and the fact that there’s a bass groove. I think if you listen at only the groove elements of each track, you can definitely hear similarities. Robin also doesn’t help his case by singing in falsetto for the first part of the first verse (although, the verse does sound completely different to me).

The lyrics are obviously different and the melody isn’t even close. In fact, after the first few seconds of each song the parity quickly fades.

But at the beginning, I can see where there may be some confusion.

Because it’s all subjective and like pretty much everything else, one expert can make a statement only to be outdone later by a different expert, or at least one who’s willing to make bold claims based on big paychecks, this may very well go to court.

And again, Thicke having mentioned that he wanted to mimic Gaye’s style in a national magazine is not great for his case.

Of course there’s selective memory.  “I do not recall saying that.”

So who’s right? 

That may be up for a judge to decide.

Marvin Gaye’s camp would of course have you believe that him saying he based his song on an MG groove and “let’s do something like that” is infringement.

But Marvin Gaye isn’t the first one to pair a funky bass line with a cowbell (and let’s all pray he’s not the last). Of course, Robin Thicke wouldn’t be the first one to have to payout for having a groove too similar to an existing work.

So is it inspiration, or infringement?

Let us know in the comments after you give the two songs a listen – we’d love to hear your thoughts.