A History of the “Blurred Lines” Case: Copyright Infringement in the Music Industry

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The high-profile copyright infringement trial featuring Robin Thicke’s 2013 international hit single “Blurred Lines” raised significant issues regarding the borderline between musical influence and straightforward copying of a commercially successful composition. Thicke and his collaborators—co-writer and producer Pharrell Williams and rapper T.I.—allegedly infringed on Marvin Gaye’s 1977 chart-topping single “Got to Give It Up (Pt.1).” Immediately after the release of “Blurred Lines” in March 2013, numerous print and online observers highlighted significant similarities with Marvin Gaye’s song that were also recognized by the legendary singer’s family. Due to the unusual circumstance of the alleged infringers initiating pre-emptive legal action later that year by suing the party whose property was affected, Thicke and his associates are effectively the plaintiffs in this case while the Gaye family members are the defendants. Critics of the Gaye family’s contention argued that any verdict against Thicke and his associates (also referred to as the Thicke Parties) would unduly limit musical creativity by restricting the scope of composition to exclude similarities to pre-existing copyrighted works. Conversely, the Gaye family contended that any failure by the court to recognize the sanctity of their intellectual property would open the floodgates to irresponsible and unauthorized misuse of copyrighted works. Victory in the case by Marvin Gaye’s estate has established a new threshold of copyright infringement liability in popular music, demonstrated in cases emerging since the “Blurred Lines” verdict. How does this legal decision ultimately affect the compositional freedom of active songwriters and producers, and how does it protect the intellectual property of song authors whose work has already reached wide audiences?

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