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Ideas | Ryan Walsh

Homage or plagiarism? A worrisome pop music precedent.

American soul singer Marvin Gaye walked ahead of his Rolls Royce in Notting Hill, London.John Minihan/Evening Standard/Getty Images/file 1976/Getty Images

SIX YEARS AGO this month, Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and T.I. released “Blurred Lines,” a catchy piece of disco throwback accompanied by a low-rent video with supermodels-as-accessories and, inexplicably, a sheep.

The song had plenty of fans; it topped the charts in several countries. But there were critics, too. Rolling Stone summed it up thusly: “It’s the sound of Adam Sandler taking a falsetto hate-whizz on Marvin Gaye‘s grave.”

Which is precisely where the legal troubles began.

In a long-running case that finally wrapped up a few months ago, a federal court ruled that Thicke and Williams should pay Gaye’s estate more than $5 million and 50 percent of all future royalties on “Blurred Lines” for ripping off the soul singer’s 1977 hit, “Got to Give It Up.”

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Here’s the thing, though: “Blurred Lines” sounds more like homage than rip-off. And the case has songwriters all over the world worried about what it might mean for their craft — and for the evolution of music.

“All music shares inspiration from prior musical works, especially within a particular musical genre,” a group of 212 musicians including the Go-Go’s and Fall Out Boy’s Patrick Stump, wrote in a friend of the court brief that accompanied an appeal of an earlier ruling against the defendants. “By eliminating any meaningful standard for drawing the line between permissible inspiration and unlawful copying, the judgment is certain to stifle creativity and impede the creative process.”

I should say that Thicke, in particular, did just about everything he could to bring on a lawsuit — pinpointing, in interviews, exactly where the inspiration for “Blurred Lines” came from.

“Pharrell and I were in the studio,” he told GQ in May 2013, “and I told him that one of my favorite songs of all time was Marvin Gaye’s ‘Got to Give It Up.’ I was like, ‘Damn, we should make something like that, something with that groove.’”

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And when Thicke and Williams sensed a claim of plagiarism in the air, they decided to pre-emptively sue Gaye’s estate with a risky legal move known as a “declaratory action.” The estate returned the volley with its own civil suit, claiming that Thicke’s song “Love after War” was also guilty of lifting without attribution.

Thicke quickly changed his tune. There was no similarity between the two songs, he claimed in interviews, eventually blaming the entire situation on his habit of abusing pain medication. From the official deposition: “Every day I woke up, I would take a Vicodin to start the day and then I would fill up a water bottle with vodka and drink it before and during my interviews.”

And then there were the problematic optics, with Thicke epitomizing the long tradition of white American artists copping black culture as their own. The truism even factored into the authorship of “Blurred Lines” itself. On the stand at the trial, Thicke said of his black co-writer, “I was jealous and I wanted some of the credit . . . because [Williams] wrote the whole thing pretty much by himself and I was envious of that.”

But if Thicke was guilty of cultural appropriation or just plain stupidity, it wasn’t at all clear that he was guilty of plagiarism. As the lone dissenting judge in the case noted, “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up” were “different in melody, harmony and rhythm.” The defendants, the dissenting judge, and the hundreds of musicians who protested the decision believe that it’s the similarity in “feel,” “style,” or “genre” that has been legally labelled theft. How else to explain this decision?

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“The decision was controversial, particularly for songwriters, because the songs were not objectively similar,” explains Joe Bennett, a consultant forensic musicologist, and a vice president of academic affairs at Berklee College of Music. “The case was built on a combination of elements — what the plaintiffs called a ‘constellation’ of ideas, similarly used, including elements that many musicians consider part of the arrangement rather than part of the song.”

The result is troubling: Homage and the art of building on prior creations can now be considered an actionable offense. There’s really no other way to interpret the decision. “I can certainly say I’m getting more calls than I used to,” Bennett says. “A lot more songwriters are coming forward with spurious claims, believing that a small similarity between their own song and a recent hit is plagiarism.”

The surge in claims is also a factor of technological change: There are more tools available to identify and call out supposed plagiarism. In the past, an accusation would require a lawyer and a musicologist carefully working together; now it can be cobbled together by anyone with an Internet connection. The history of recorded music? A click away. Software enabling you to edit the songs together or on top of each other? It’s a free download. Platforms to spread your theory to the entire world? Countless.

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It was on YouTube and Twitter that users built the case that Sam Smith had ripped off Tom Petty with his 2014 song “Stay With Me.” In that particular case, the fervor was snuffed out before it even had a chance to hit a courtroom. “No hard feelings,” Petty remarked of the songs’ similarities. “These things happen.”

It was an incredibly cool and generous reaction; perhaps Petty was aware of all of the times he himself had taken various elements from songs he adored, jumbled them up with his own life experiences and musical talents, and watched it all emerge in the form of a brilliant new composition.

With the courts headed in a worrisome direction, it may be the musicians who have to step in and save the music.


Ryan H. Walsh is a Boston-based musician and author of “Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968.”