The first time I heard Blurred Lines, I assumed Robin Thicke had sampled parts of Marvin Gaye’s Got to Give it Up. Not just because the feel of the songs is similar – I also heard common elements and grooves. Trouble is, the Gaye family also thought Robin Thicke took some from Got to Give It Up and stuck it in Blurred Lines. There are even reports that the Robin Thicke people offered the Gaye family six-figures to silence the controversy, but the Gaye kids declined. So, Robin Thicke sucker punched the Gaye family by suing them. Thicke has asked a judge to declare that he didn’t steal anything1. A lawsuit is no easy deal – it’s expensive, enraging and draining. Robin Thicke, trying to pin a legend of soul and funk to the ground, has sprouted handlebars on his thin little mustache.
(In case you have been hiding under a rock this summer and have yet to hear the song, you can check out the Blurred Lines music video here. Then compare it to Marvin Gaye’s classic Got to Give it Up here.)
Thick has picked a ballsy, audacious strategy. It’s also risky, considering that Thicke admitted he started writing the song minutes after he listened to it and announced:
“Damn, we should make something like that, something with that groove.”2
One reason why Thicke may have sued first was to pick the court with better law for him (Ali Sternberg at Project Disco wrote a terrific post about this)3. From a litigator’s (narrow) perspective, that may be the right strategy. But it will also make it nearly impossible to do what a reasonable Thicke would really want: to get out of this fight. Having declared war, there is little incentive for the Gaye family to bargain with Thicke. Speaking for the Gaye family, Marvin Gaye III said: “What would he want to be protected from if he didn’t do anything?”
“On behalf of my brother Frank and my sister Nona and myself, we’re all fans of Robin Thicke’s as well as he’s a fan of my father’s.” Still, he said, “There’s a way to do business and there’s a way not to do business. And we’re not happy with the way that he’s doing business, let alone suing us over something that you know where he clearly got his inspiration from, at the least.”
Copyright lawsuits around songs are unpredictable. If the Gaye family can show that Blurred Lines is substantially similar to Got to Give it Up, they win. To prove substantially similar, they just need to do 2 things: 1. They need to get some musicologists to compare the elements and ideas in the song and find similarities; 2. They need to show that a reasonable, ordinary listener would find the songs substantially similar (though technically the burden to disprove will be on Thicke since he filed). Both sides will have no trouble finding musicologists to help them make their case. If the Gaye family’s experts are more persuasive, then all they need to show is that the songs are substantially similar. Even though I’m not a musicologist, my reaction matters. That’s because half of the battle for the Gaye family is to show that an ordinary listener would find the two songs substantially similar5.
1. Robin Thicke Complaint – The Hollywood Reporter
2. Robin Thicke on That Banned Video, Collaborating with 2 Chainz and Kendrick Lamar, and His New Film – GQ
3. Why did Robin Thicke file a lawsuit over Blurred Lines? – Disruptive Competition Project
4. Marvin Gaye III Speaks on Plans to Sue Robin Thicke – BET
5. Tests for Substantial Similarity – Substantial Similarity in Copyright Law