Blurred Lines: Offensive, but Probably Not Copyright Infringement

At least in my circles, it’s pretty much taken for granted that Robin Thicke’s megahit “Blurred Lines” is shamelessly offensive.

I can’t imagine telling a woman “You the hottest bitch in this place!” I definitely can’t get behind the song’s no-means-maybe-means-yes message. The video is practically a parody of itself. (Here’s an actual parody that reverses the genders; much better.)

I also think it’s safe to say that Marvin Gaye gets a good bit more love and respect, even if nobody’s calling him a great feminist thinker. Further, “Blurred Lines” is just the latest example in a loooooong tradition of white artists appropriating musical styles developed by minority artists.

So, as forward-thinking people looking at the ongoing copyright dispute between the artists, it should be a slam dunk all-around agreement that, considering the striking similarity between “Blurred Lines” and the classic Gaye song “Got to Give It Up”, we should all hope that Gaye’s team sues Thicke for all he’s worth — or, at least, much/most/all of the truckloads of cash “Blurred Lines” has hauled in. (And let’s throw in Pharrell Williams, too, for producing and co-writing this bit of musical larceny.) Right?

Not so fast.

Before beginning a (brief) legal analysis, let’s set aside the very valid critiques of the gender politics in Thicke’s song and video (to say nothing of the shameful gender politics and troubling racial messaging of the Thicke/Miley Cyrus VMA performance).

If there’s one thing Larry Flynt got right about free speech law, it’s that we are better off if free speech protections also extend even to scumbags like Larry Flynt.

Under current law, “Blurred Lines” is probably not infringing, assuming no samples were used — that is, assuming that all the sounds were independently re-recorded for the new song, and Thicke and Farrell claim not to have sampled Gaye’s song.

Without sampling, an infringement case here requires proof of “substantial similarity” between the original and the newer work. Here’s a Billboard article where you can listen to both “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up”, side by side.

The rhythmic similarities are substantial, but according to literally every expert on musical similarity in copyright that I’ve ever read/heard/spoken with, that counts for very little — again, assuming the sounds were independently re-recorded. Here’s a bit from the Music Copyright Infringement Resource, a joint project of the law schools at Columbia and USC, explaining how melody is the key to establishing substantial similarity between two musical compositions:

A work’s melody is what we consider the tune of a piece. Indeed it is most usually the melody of a piece that we hum when trying to recall it; a piece’s melody is typically its most distinctive and memorable feature. As such, melody is the musical element that most easily lends itself to claims of originality. …

Melody is overwhelmingly the single most important feature of a musical work in evaluating the merits of copyright infringement claims. The entire corpus of judicial opinions in the area of music copyright infringement dwells on melody as the single most idiosyncratic element of the works in question, and almost entirely the locus of the economic worth of a song. Accordingly, the more melodically similar two works are, the more likely a court will determine that the later created work infringes upon the earlier.

So, for evaluating the question of musical infringement, the drums and backup instrumentals all take a way-in-the-back backseat to the melody. (We’ll come back to whether this should be the case in a bit.) With all this in mind, go back and re-listen to each song. A brief bit of each will do.

I’m not a trained musician, but I mixed house and drum & bass records for years (at the tail end of when it meant mixing actual vinyl records), so I notice rhythmic similarities much more readily than melodic similarities. In terms of rhythmic elements, the speed and the drum patterns are so similar as to be “I could mix these two songs together in my sleep” close, which most non-DJs would describe as the two songs “feeling” very similar.

The rhythmic similarities are the bedrock of the two songs’ similar feel. They’re well within the same genre, and it’s not at all shocking to hear Thicke say that he was deliberately trying to recreate the groove of Gaye’s song. Yet even in terms of drum patterns — where the similarities are the strongest, even if the impact in a potential infringement suit is smallest — there are real differences.

I can hear (and can even visualize, as would be represented in a step sequencer) a host of differences. Most folks could probably hear the differences, though it may take some patience to listen to each song enough times; it took me a few listens each.

Melodically, the two songs are substantially more different. They are still well within the same genre here as well, but the melody should be transparently different even to the untrained ear. I should know, because I have just such an untrained ear (ask my karaoke victims, er, audiences) and I can hear the differences pretty easily.

In the case law, the closest analog I know of is Bright Tunes Music v. Harrisongs Music, 420 F. Supp. 177 (S.D.N.Y. 1976). The plaintiff, Bright Tunes, held the copyright in the composition of the doo-wop hit “He’s So Fine” — written by Ronnie Mack, who died of cancer as the Chiffons recording of his song was rocketing up the charts in 1963.

When George Harrison wrote and recorded “My Sweet Lord” in 1970, “He’s So Fine” was not at all on his mind, but he wound up creating a melody very similar to the older tune.

The similarities are striking, and importantly for the copyright question, it is the melodies of the two songs that are so similar. Here, somebody has helpfully created a mashup of “He’s So Fine” and “My Sweet Lord”, so you can listen to them simultaneously. They don’t line up perfectly, but it’s pretty clear that the melodies are pretty similar.

Harrison didn’t realize the similarities, but once they were pointed out to him, he says, “I thought, ‘Why didn’t I realize?’ It would have been very easy to change a note here or there and not affect the feeling of the record.” (Again, this isn’t part of the legal analysis, but I actually give Harrison much more credit here than I do Thicke on the “How badly is this white musician exploiting black musical culture” question. Intent matters for ethical and cultural criticism, but how much we like people and think they’re doing the “right” thing is not the same question as whether or not the law is on their side.)

Anyway, Harrison was essentially found to have subconsciously infringed on Mack’s song — to have infringed without having done so deliberately. This even though the two melodies are not identical — just very similar.

In light of all of this case law, for songwriters to have a deliberate intent to borrow is, if anything, helpful for them. Thicke and Pharrell surely know that it’s the melody that gets you in trouble — and they definitely acted accordingly. It doesn’t take much imagination to listen to the Gaye and Thicke songs and hear the latter’s notes as deliberately dissimilar to the former — thus, creating far more daylight between the two melodies than in the Bright Tunes case.

There’s actually an art to this that can pay handsomely if one composes music for TV commercials. If a songwriter wants too much to license a hit song that an advertiser covets, the advertisers can just hire a composer to bang out a not-quite-copy for a fraction of the price. This happens all the time; here are just a few examples.

Anyway, I hope it’s pretty clear by now why “Blurred Lines” really isn’t infringing. Don’t believe me? Three independent industry insiders also hold this view.

I’ll end with a few words about whether the similarity standard we have now really should be the case. (Can you smell the journal article burning? What follows is the “This is a blog post and I need to go to bed” version.)

I don’t want a copyright system where I can’t create a song (or book or movie) that has a similar overall feel to anything that’s been done in the last hundred years. Because, guess what: If that’s the rule and it’s enforced at even a moderate rate (say, 10% or more), then creativity either comes to a screeching halt or goes largely underground. Building on previous cultural milestones is how culture works.

I’m even disturbed by the Bright Tunes standard: If we put two otherwise dissimilar songs next to each other, at just the right points, are most of the notes of some parts of the melody the same? Consider how scary this standard is in light of the musical simplicity of pop melodies. If this is the standard, are there any songs that aren’t infringing left to be written? I’m scared there may not be.

If Bright Tunes-style plaintiffs get just a bit more of a toehold in the case law, what’s to stop copyright trolls from buying up old songs that are just-similar-enough to big hits and demanding exorbitant payments? The ownership of the copyrights in studio recordings is more consolidated (mostly, these copyrights are owned by labels), but the rights to compositions are everywhere and can often be bought for relatively low prices.

If a hobbyist composer hopes to make it big but looks at this landscape in my not-unlikely-enough dystopian near-future, shouldn’t s/he be scared and consider maybe not even to bother? After all, even the mighty George Harrison claims never to have made a single dollar on one of his most beloved songs — all because he accidentally made the melody too similar to a very different song. What hope is there for somebody just starting out, who’s not also an expert musicologist walking around with a century of musical knowledge?

The Bright Songs standard is already too easy for plaintiffs. If Gaye’s heirs were to win a decision that “Blurred Lines” is infringing, it would send a pretty discouraging message to today’s would-be musical composers.

I say all of this as somebody who has a bone to pick with the “melody is everything” theory of musical composition that guides our law today. Distinctive rhythms can make or break a song, and the drums can themselves be the most memorable, marketable part of a song. (See: Stubblefield, Clyde.)

There are also unfortunate racial connotations to this paradigm. It’s not too far down the chain in the Apollonian/Dionysian dichotomy, where Apollo represents mind/discourse/melody/whiteness and Dionysus represents body/movement/rhythm/blackness.

Don’t think this still carries water today? Then why does popular discourse still treat blacks so prominently as athletes and dancers, generally discarding what they have to say? And why is it really important to hear what white people have to say, even when the very basis for their fame is a physical gift? (See: Tebow, Tim) Why is music from non-white parts of the world called World Beat and African music generally sold as AfroBeat?

The racial critique of this emphasis on melody is valid and important, but I still don’t want a copyright system where “Blurred Lines” is infringing, even though I just spent a whole paragraph arguing that the part where it’s most like “Got to Give It Up” shouldn’t be treated as so relatively unimportant by the law. While some have tried to reconcile this melody/rhythm inequity by pushing copyright in the direction of broader protection for rhythmic elements, I think the better solution is to put less emphasis on melody as separated from the whole composition and instead to put the whole composition in context.

Looked at as an entire composition, “My Sweet Lord” is pretty different from “He’s So Fine”. The lyrics are 100% different. The instrumentation is pretty different. The sound and feel are remarkably different. It’s only the focus on melody that led the court into what I think was a mistake.

On the other side, “Blurred Lines” and “Got to Give It Up” are more similar on most counts except lyrics and melody. They sound and feel very similar, though even the drum pattern is clearly not identical. Looked at holistically they’re still pretty different songs, built in large part on the very different lyrics and melody.

I don’t think we should set up a copyright system where “very rhythmically similar” is, by itself, grounds for a finding of infringement. The change I’m advocating is that we should also apply that standard to melodic similarity.

Just as inventors really want to keep the lawyers out of the lab, I really want to keep them out of the music studio. If the price of being able to compose without an attorney on retainer is that, sometimes, crass capitalists push the line of exploiting the feel of successful works, it’s a price I think we as a society should pay.

If we swing the other way, to the point that something like “Blurred Lines” equals legal hot water, that means pretty much all popular music puts you in legal hot water. Which would mean that only those who can afford attorneys — in advance — will have any business making music. And that’s a far higher price for we as a society to pay.

P.S. Speaking of prices paid, I hope we forward-thinking folks can all agree not to pay for “Blurred Lines.” If you like that song’s groove, allow me to suggest a Marvin Gaye tune I know. It’s not exactly the same; it’s better.