What’s Wrong With the ‘Blurred Lines’ Copyright Ruling

What’s Wrong With the ‘Blurred Lines’ Copyright Ruling

Robin Thicke performs on NBC's "Today" show on Tuesday, July 30, 2013 in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)
Robin Thicke performs on NBC’s “Today” show on Tuesday, July 30, 2013 in New York. (Photo by Charles Sykes/Invision/AP)

(New York Times) – Here’s how songs, especially hip-hop and R&B songs, are made today: the framework is built in the studio by a producer, working on some combination of keyboard, drum machine, sampler and computer program. Songwriters contribute topline melodies and conceptual ideas, and sometimes all the words. Generally speaking, at the moment of creation, there is no sheet music, no notation that’s meant to guide musicians.

On Tuesday, a federal jury in Los Angeles concluded that Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, the performer and primary songwriter-producer of the 2013 pop hit “Blurred Lines,” committed copyright infringement by using elements of the 1977 Marvin Gaye song “Got to Give It Up” in their composition without proper credit. The jury awarded Mr. Gaye’s family approximately $7.3 million, a combination of profits from the song and damages. That’s an attention-getting amount of money, but the verdict itself is far more damning.

Owing to the specifics of copyright law, the jury was instructed to base its decision on the sheet music, a fact that reflects how inadequate copyright law is when it comes to contemporary songwriting and production practices. In 2015, the arrangement of notes on a sheet of paper is among the least integral parts of pop music creation. We’re decades beyond the time when a songwriter penned a tune on paper, then gave it to musicians to perform.

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