The world of music is teeming with creative individuals with heads full of new ideas. But given the number of artists out there, it seems inevitable that accusations of copying from one another will occur from time to time. Many modern classics are built upon prior works, rightly or wrongly; Rick James' "Superfreak" gave us MC Hammer's "Can't Touch This," and Queen's "Under Pressure" was cribbed to make Vanilla Ice's "Ice Ice Baby" ("Ninja Rap," in all its glory, was presumably original). But one recent case of alleged musical theft is moving closer to its day in court.
Sitcom scion Robin Thicke and notable hat-wearer Pharrell Williams have lost the first round of their legal dispute with the estate of late R&B singer Marvin Gaye over their 2013 hit song, "Blurred Lines," as a US district judge denied their motion for summary judgment. The duo had filed a preemptive suit aganist Gaye's family after receiving threats of legal action from the estate over claims that "Blurred Lines" infringes upon Gaye's 1977 song "Got To Give It Up." The suit from Thicke and Williams prompted a countersuit from the Gaye family, contending that "Blurred Lines" was indeed infringing upon "Got To Give It Up." Both sides relied upon the testimony of musicologists to make their case, with US District Judge John Kronstadt determining that the Gaye family "made a sufficient showing that elements of "Blurred Lines" may be substantially similar to protected, original elements of 'Got to Give It Up.'"
The Thicke and Williams lawsuit will continue to move forward, as the Gaye camp failed to produce any evidence that demostrates whether the copyrights related to Gaye's song extends beyond the sheet music to features heard on the audio recording. Thicke's deposition in the matter gained some notoriety, as the singer admitted to using drugs and not being very involved during the recording process, in addition to claims that he misled the media when stating he went into the process with Marvin Gaye in mind. Thicke's claims are notable in this case, as the "inverse-ratio rule" lowers the burden of proof of similarity as familiarity with a work increases; while Thicke may not be denying that he's familiar with "Got To Give It Up," his defense would seem to indicate that it would be difficult for him to infringe on Gaye's work if he had little to do with the song's creation. The case is moving to trial in February 2015.
While borrowing from another artist or attempting to "pay homage" may seem innocent enough, even small-time copyright infringement can land you in a precarious situation. Whatever your creation is, make sure your work isn't infringing on the intellectual property of others before going to market. A costly court case is a "growing pain" your business can't afford.