Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams plagiarised Blurred Lines, to pay $7.4mn
Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams were branded as copyright infringers by a jury on Tuesday and Marvin Gaye's family was awarded nearly $7.4 million in a decision that will be on the minds of music executives and lawyers for years to come.Updated: Mar 12, 2015 12:42 IST
Blurred Lines was a breezy, upbeat hit that became the biggest song of 2013.
Nearly two years later, the court case it spawned has once again changed the fortunes of its creators, Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams, who were branded as copyright infringers by a jury on Tuesday. Marvin Gaye's family was awarded nearly $7.4 million in a decision that will be on the minds of music executives and lawyers for years to come.
The trial provided an inside look at how today's music is crafted, marketed and sold - and how it can be picked apart in a federal courtroom.
As jurors heard before starting deliberations last week, Blurred Lines was a bright spot in a year when overall music sales dropped 4%. Tuesday's verdict clouds its legacy and its future, and presents new challenges for the beleaguered music industry.
Testimony and trial exhibits helped rewrite the story of Blurred Lines.
BIRTH OF BLURRED LINES
It was a busy mid-June night for Williams at Glenwood Studios in Burbank. In one studio, the hit-making producer was working with Miley Cyrus, and in another, he was collaborating with rapper Earl Sweatshirt.
A third studio had been booked to record a song with Thicke.
Williams' memory of the events by his own admission isn't perfect, but he recalls going into a studio and beginning a process he calls "surfing around" - looking for chords that will form his latest hit. He sat down at a drum set and started playing.
Bluegrass was on his mind because of his work that day with Cyrus. In an hour or less, Williams said he had the music to Blurred Lines.
When Thicke arrived, the pair pretended to be old men yelling at women, and those catcalls became a major element of the song. They started recording. "We were bopping and dancing," Williams said last week in court. "It was a cool night."
SELLING BLURRED LINES
"We have to show the world why the music is good," marketing executive Nicole Bilzerian told jurors recently while explaining how Blurred Lines was sold after it was released in March 2013.
For Blurred Lines, the song's music video drove its popularity. Two versions were recorded, one featuring nude models dancing with the singers.
That unrated video got banned by YouTube, which Bilzerian said "caused more of a buzz." The more people that watched and discussed the video, the more the song sold.
The song's popularity led to endorsements, with both Beats and RadioShack using it in ad campaigns.
By May, Thicke and Williams were doing frequent interviews about the song. Many had already drawn a connection between Blurred Lines and Gaye's 1977 hit, Got to Give It Up.
Thicke repeatedly mentioned in interviews that Got to Give It Up, one of his favorite songs, was an inspiration for "Blurred Lines."
He told interviewers he liked the song so much, he told Williams he wanted to record something similar.
Sitting in on many of the interviews was an Interscope Records representative. Bilzerian said the label, which arranged hundreds of promotional events for the song including the Today show, didn't tell Thicke what to do or say.
That exposure helped propel Blurred Lines to the top of the charts in 80 countries, selling more than 14 million copies worldwide and 7.3 million copies in the United States alone. Marketing efforts cost around $3 million.
Everyone involved, except Gaye's family, made money. Williams and Thicke pocketed more than $7 million apiece in profits from the song.
Thicke's quotes would come back to haunt him after Gaye's family filed suit. Thicke's defence of himself was unflattering - he testified he was drunk and high on drugs and misspoke about conversations with Williams.
On Feb. 24, the singers and Gaye's family assembled for a trial that would determine whether Blurred Lines copied Gaye's music. Eight jurors were picked, and the trial resumed the next day with Thicke testifying and using a keyboard to play parts of songs from The Beatles, U2 and other artists to demonstrate how similar notes appear in different music.
Williams testified the following week, and sat stone-faced the next day as Gaye family attorney Richard Busch called him and Thicke liars during closing arguments.
"Keep in mind at all times," Busch told the jury, "these people are professional performers."
Howard King, lead attorney for Williams and Thicke, played a version of Got to Give It Up recorded from his sheet music, then played Blurred Lines.
"If my clients were running this case, I would thank you and sit down. These songs are not the same," King said.
He did not perform the proverbial "mic drop" but continued speaking for several more minutes, attacking the Gayes' music experts and telling the panel he didn't think damages would be an issue.
But damages did come up in deliberations, and quickly, as revealed by a question the panel posed to a judge.
On Tuesday, the verdict was in. Gaye's family sat nervously in the frigid courtroom. Thicke and Williams weren't present.
As a court clerk read damage figures that would total nearly $7.4 million, Gaye's daughter Nona wept.
Gaye's family will seek an injunction against Blurred Lines, which will give them negotiating clout to get a bigger slice of future profits and possibly a songwriting credit for the late singer.
The verdict will likely have a lasting impact on the music industry, with many predicting that record labels will become more conservative about releasing songs that sound similar to other works.
The case could be subject to years of motions and appeals, leaving the issue of musical homages in murky legal waters for the near future.
Despite it all, Blurred Lines isn't going away, said Joe Levy, editor-at-large at Billboard. "People aren't going to stop playing it."
First Published: Mar 12, 2015 12:06 IST