The lawsuit over "Blurred Lines" is finally settled, but what does the verdict mean for creativity?

Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams’ smash hit “Blurred Lines” may have been one of the most in-your-face songs of 2013, but the recent lawsuit against it — and its results — have the media and experts in a current state of shock and confusion. As Williams and Thicke look for a way to pay the $7.4 million dollar judgment against them (T.I. escaped the suit, as he was only classified as a “guest” on the track), questions still go unanswered as to how a lawsuit like this can even get so far, let alone win.

The fallout from it, however, may just be what the industry needs to force itself into creating unique songs stretching planes of variety, instead of relying on the copy/paste routine we're currently stuck in. 

Full disclosure: None of us in the office have any kind of legal background aside from a few-hundred-thousand hours clocked tuning in to COPS, Judge Judy and Reno 911. So while much of the legalese surrounding the suit escapes us (because that’s what legalese is intended to do), we feel grabbing the overall gist of things is enough to make a decent observation.

Williams and Thicke’s song “Blurred Lines” and Marvin Gaye’s “Got To Give It Up” sound, in parts, like the same fucking song. But that proclamation alone in the world of copyright law and mounds of cash isn’t enough to just let it be. No, people want their fair share of money (even if one of the artists is no longer with us) and will take the gamble of having a high court make the assessment.

Simply bringing a lawsuit to the public is implication enough to get a dialogue open, but a judgment against an artist for copyright violation is an industry flipper.

It happens all the time though: One artist is inspired by another and the music produced “just so happens” to sound like something already created. That’s kind of how inspiration works. That’s kind of how culture works. That’s kind of how this all works — we build on the creation of others. We have insane capabilities to build physics-defying structures because at some point in our evolution a large-foreheaded dope picked up a rock and used it to hammer something. 

It’s why songs actually work as songs, too. In one of our recent articles, “The Brain Science of Pop Music,” we point out that repetition is a constant in music and creates perceptual fluency — the ease with which information is processed. Artists know of these tricks and duplicate things on purpose to trigger positive emotions in the brain.

In an article posted this morning about the Thicke/Gaye/Williams lawsuit, LA Weekly’s Andy Hermann points out, “…structurally and rhythmically, the songs are quite similar. But the lyrics and top-line melodies — the notes sung by a lead vocal or played on a lead instrument — are not the same, and those traditionally have always been the two elements of a song protected under copyright law.”

With the definition of copyright being clear and manageable before, many experts felt the Gaye family had no merit in its lawsuit and predicted the courts would favor Williams and Thicke. “It’s an old music industry truism that you can’t copyright a rhythm,” continues Hermann. “… ’Got to Give It Up’ is an undeniably great song, (but) it’s about 90 percent rhythm. It doesn’t even have a chorus.”

And while the Hollywood Reporter’s view from inside the courtroom suggests the two pieces consistently overlap — in “Signature phrase,” “Hook,” “Keyboard-bass interplay” and others — the case was never made the song directly violates copyright law. The two only “feeling” similar was enough for a guilty verdict and the outome of it will inevitably have big implications on the industry in the future.

“When we say a song ‘sounds like’ a certain era, it’s because artists in that era were doing a lot of the same things—or, yes, copying each other,” says director of copyright activism at the Electronic Frontier Foundation Parker Higgens. “If copyright were to extend out past things like the melody to really cover the other parts that make up the ‘feel’ of a song, there’s no way an era, or a city, or a movement could have a certain sound. Without that, we lose the next disco, the next Motown, the next batch of protest songs.”

To avoid being sued like this in the future, artists and producers will have to choose to either be more unique with their output (a positive thing, yes?) or will have to dole out preemptive cash at every turn. In an interview with Complex, former music industry attorney Reggie Ossé says Williams and Thicke could have avoided the chaos altogether by paying off the Gaye estate for using the song’s sample. “I’ve heard somewhere that Gaye’s estate was charging $60,000 (for clearance), which is definitely heavy-handed,” says Ossé. “If so, that’s fucked what they were charging, but compare that to the end result here. $60,000 is still a pittance.”

The lawsuit itself won’t tear down the industry as we know it, because this kind of thing happens all the time. Some of you may be old enough to remember the Vanilla Ice/David Bowie heater over the rapper’s use of Bowie’s “Under Pressure” opening, or most recently Sam Smith willingly handing over to Tom Petty a hefty check for his use of Petty’s melodies.

It’s just our musical landscape now. Recorded media is bound to overlap, and where there are justifications for it being litigious, we can always bet lawyers will swarm all over it.

Depending on what side of the coin you’re on is how you’ll naturally view the verdict, though. On the one hand: Artists will undoubtedly have the unending fear of being sued in the back of their minds while creating, thus forcing a shift in the procedure as a whole. On the other: It may just be what the industry needs to kickstart itself into getting its shit together to create risky and innovative structures.

Could a revolution be neigh? Wouldn’t that be a mind-rolling kicker, if Robin Thicke were actually an impetus of a musical metamorphosis of historical record?

Stranger things have happened, we suppose …