Attendees at the Californian District Court recently might well wonder if their ears have deceived them. Passers-by may be puzzled at the strains of 'I know you want it' and other colourful song lyrics emanating from within. Those of a delicate disposition might be advised to stay away all together, as a high profile copyright dispute relating to the controversial chart hit, Blurred Lines, gets underway.
Pilloried for its provocative lyrics, and denounced for its objectification of women, the chart-topping Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke collaboration is now courting controversy of an entirely different kind in the face of allegations by Marvin Gaye's family of similarities to his famous (and fundamentally less vulgar) hit 'Got to Give It Up'.
Williams, Thicke and Clifford Harris Jr previously sought a pre-emptive ruling that their single Blurred Lines did not infringe copyright in Gaye's song, after the family had accused it of so doing. Claims of substantially similar features which 'surpass the realm of generic coincidence' within the sheet music and sound recordings of both songs have been advanced by the Gaye family.
Robin Thicke's admission in an interview with GQ in 2013 that he and Pharrell, in reference to Got to give it up, agreed to 'make something like that, something with that groove' in their conception of Blurred Lines, points to a somewhat less subtle source of inspiration, and may not help the case for the defence. That the sound recording of Gaye's hit was not deposited with the Copyright Office, and the complainer's reliance on mis-matched sound recordings and sheet music in an earlier stage of the legal wrangle suggests, however, that the case may yet be a close contest.
Blurred Lines happens to be a quite relevant and appropriate example of the grey area that gleaning creative inspiration from other copyright works can potentially sometimes be. Current formulaic pop music productions sounding strikingly similar are an increasingly common trend. This is especially so where pop star 'farming' is now a weekly televised event. Studies have shown the path to chart success is subtly following the conventional formula of tempo, key, duration and 'danceability' – yes that is a scientific term - with only the slightest of difference in order to set your work apart.
Indeed, such a sound-alike epidemic means that the issue of unlawful copying of protected elements of musical works is as pertinent an issue across the industry as it has ever been. On a serious note (pun intended) musicians commonly draw inspiration from prior works, sometimes even subconsciously, in the creation of musical works which can also cause problems. The former Beatle George Harrison was found guilty of 'subconscious plagiarism' with his hit 'My Sweet Lord' in a case which demonstrated the practical challenges of copyright infringement in music.
While the jury is still out on whether the Blurred Lines case will prove to be a constructive forum for advancing the understanding of the nuances of musical copyright infringement, the jury is likely to be unanimous in its awkwardness as the songs are played in court. Think Fifty Shades of Grey with your family!