For Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, a copyright infringement lawsuit finds the lines blurred between creative inspiration and plagiarism. If any Top 40s station or Billboard Hot 100 list is indicative enough, the summer of 2013 was Robin Thicke at his peak. Debuting as the leading single off his sixth studio album, “Blurred Lines” was an immediate world success, selling 14.8 million copies upon its release, peaking at No. 1 in over 14 countries, and reigning as the longest-running number-one single of 2013 with 12 consecutive weeks at the top of the Hot 100 chart. Produced by Pharrell Williams and featuring performances with T.I., “Blurred Lines” was nominated for several awards—including two Grammys for Record of the Year and Best Pop Duo—and is Thicke’s most commercially successful single to date.
The same could not be said for Thicke in 2014. Following the mainstream commercial success of “Blurred Lines,” the R&B singer released “Get Her Back,” the leading single off his seventh album, Paula. It proved to be an ill-fated attempt to win back his ex-wife, Paula Patton, with whom he had recently separated earlier that year. Paula was regarded as a commercial failure, only selling 530 copies in the UK, 550 copies in Canada, and 158 in Australia. Thicke’s stint with Miley Cyrus at the 2013 Video Music Awards has been panned by popular audiences (with the majority of scrutiny unduly falling upon Cyrus). The lyrical content of “Blurred Lines” has been derided as misogynistic by perpetuating rape culture and trivializing sexual assault. Coupled with the single’s controversial music video, “Blurred Lines” has been critiqued for objectifying women and making light of sexual consent, with lyrics such as, “I know you want it.”
While the R&B singer’s futile attempts to win back public favor have generally spawned disastrous results (see: the #AskThicke hashtag on Twitter being courted with queries about misogyny), Thicke’s biggest success of his career has turned out to be his biggest nightmare. On Mar. 10, a jury found Robin Thicke’s “Blurred Lines” to have copied elements of Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song, “Got to Give It Up,” without permission, awarding the Gaye family a payout of $7.4 million. While Thicke and Pharrell Williams were held liable, the Gaye family is seeking to add T.I. as well as the Interscope Records to the verdict.
The “Blurred Lines” case has had a resounding impact on the music world—with artists from John Legend to Pharrell Williams himself weighing in on the implications of the verdict. Both Legend and Williams have expressed concern over setting a precedent for copyright infringement cases in the entertainment industry. In an interview with Associated Press, Legend stated that the future of music was in jeopardy, warning that the verdict would establish a dangerous precedent for musicians who derive inspiration from other artists. Meanwhile, Williams has slammed the jury’s verdict. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Williams maintains that both he and Thicke wrote the song without outside influence. “The verdict handicaps any creator out there who is making something that might be inspired by something else,” Williams told the Financial Times.
The lawsuit finding Williams and Thicke guilty of copyright infringement has blurred distinctions between inspiration and plagiarism. Robin Thicke has specifically stated in the past that he was inspired by Marvin Gaye while writing “Blurred Lines” (which he later retracted when the lawsuit reached headlines last year, admitting that he lied about writing the song because he was jealous of Williams). While it’s obvious that “Blurred Lines” borrowed elements from Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up,” the lawsuit is unusual for the amount of media attention it generated. “Blurred Lines” is not the first song to be accused of ripping off past artists in the last year. Sam Smith has quietly settled a lawsuit in January, agreeing to add Tom Petty as a co-writer to his single, “Stay With Me” after being accused of plagiarizing Petty’s “I Won’t Back Down.” Even bands such as the Beatles and Radiohead have been subject to copyright infringement suits, for copying artists in “Come Together” and “Creep,” respectively.
No one is saying we should sympathize with Thicke for his lack of originality and having to pay $1.7 million to the Gaye family in reimbursement. With an increasing number of contemporary artists sampling content from previous musicians in their work, what the “Blurred Lines” case has proven is that artists now have to walk a fine line between inspiration and plagiarism. In a follow-up to the case, the Gaye family has accused Pharrell Williams of copying Marvin Gaye in his 2014 hit, “Happy.” As more of these copyright infringement lawsuits reach headlines, they call into question the integrity of musical artists and their ability to produce creative and original work without being accused of stealing content from their predecessors.