Heard the recent news about music copyright laws? Those in the music industry have been buzzing on social media outlets for the past few weeks about the recent case between Marvin Gaye’s heirs and superstars Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke, over their mega-hit, “Blurred Lines”. The case has left many with more questions than answers about copyright law and songwriting, especially given the multimillion dollar judgment associated with the case. For those unfamiliar with the suit, Marvin Gaye’s heirs were awarded $7.4 million dollars in damages after the court agreed that Williams and Thicke violated the copyright associated with Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit song, “Got to Give it Up”. What exactly happened, and perhaps most importantly, how can the average songwriter protect themselves from copyright infringement?

Understanding Music Copyright Laws and the Blurred Lines Lawsuit

The actual lawsuit is fairly complex and the appeals are still pending, so the lasting effects of this case remain to be seen. The basics of the case, however, can give some insight into the complex nature of music copyright laws. It is important to understand that there are two separate components to a musical work, both of which can be copyrighted. The first piece is the musical composition which consists of the music, as it is written, and any accompanying lyrics. The author of the composition is usually the composer and the lyricist. The composition can take physical structure in the form of annotated copy, sheet music, or in an original sound recording.

Music copyright laws Zachary Hiller blog Houston, TXThe second component to a musical work is the sound recording. The author of a sound recording is the performers whose performance is fixed and/or the record producers or engineers who manipulate the sounds to achieve the final product. It’s important to remember that the author of the musical work is not necessarily the copyright holder of the sound recording, nor is copyrighting the sound recording a replacement for copyrighting the composition. In short, there is a copyright for the person who created the song and potentially a separate copyright for the person who performs/records the song.

This plays into the Blurred Lines lawsuit in an interesting manner for a number of reasons.

  1. The lawsuit was brought in a pre-emptive move by Mr. Williams and Mr. Thicke to prevent any suits from the heirs to Marvin Gaye’s estate. This was in response to grumblings and rumors that the hit song ripped off two songs; Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up” and Funkadelic’s “Sexy Ways”. The intention was to prove that a new work cannot infringe on a copyright simply by mimicking a genre, style or feel.
  2. The case focused on the idea of composition copyright rather than sound recording and the judge ruled that the Gaye family could not play both songs at trial. They were instead limited to the documents filed with the copyright office leaving them to compare the songs note by note. Ironically, it was the lawyers for Thicke and Williams that played the songs for the jury, inviting greater comparisons than the sheet music alone.
  3. Up until this point, it was thought that you cannot copyright genre or vibe to a song. Williams argued that “Blurred Lines” was meant as homage to a style and genre of music, but did not directly pirate any pieces of the Gaye song. The Gaye family argued that “Blurred Lines” contained eight distinct elements from the original song, which are protected under copyright law.

The verdict has caused a number of singers and songwriters to weigh in with the fear that this court case will cool potential writer’s creativity, if they believe that they are subject to frivolous lawsuits. Others argue that this is a simple copyright case, and it seems that the jury agreed; finding that key pieces of the Marvin Gaye hit was stolen to create “Blurred Lines”.

 

The long term ramifications of the suit are yet to be seen as the case now moves into the appeals stage. The core message is clear, however. Songwriting is a creative process, influenced by genres and eras that came before. If you are unsure about your rights as they pertain to music copyright laws, it is important to consult with an expert! Get in touch with Zachary Hiller if you have questions or would like to schedule a consultation.

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