Pharrell Williams Testifies in 'Blurred Lines' Copyright Infringement Lawsuit

The recording artist says capturing the feel of a song, or an era, isn't the same as infringing on a copyright.



How far does a copyright on a song go? When Marvin Gaye's family suggested the Pharrell Williams/Robin Thicke song "Blurred Lines" was ripped off the "sound" and "feel" of Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up," the two filed a pre-emptive lawsuit against the family. Robin Thicke's comments to the press that "Got to Give It Up" was an inspiration for the song didn't help, but eventually Thicke testified he was too inebriated at the time of making the song to remember much.

On the witness stand this week, Pharrell Williams explained the process of creating "Blurred Lines" over the course of one night at a recording studio, cutting Thicke out of most of it—he showed up when the music and lyrics had already been mostly written, Williams testified.

The 41-year-old Williams testified that Marvin Gaye and 70s soul were part of the musical milieu in which he grew up but that he'd never seek out to "take something of someone else's when you love him." The AP reports:

Williams said after the song was released, he saw similarities between "Blurred Lines" and Gaye's work but said that wasn't a conscious part of his creative process.

Richard S. Busch, who represents the Gaye family, asked Williams whether he felt "Blurred Lines" captured the feel of the era in which Gaye recorded.

"Feel," Williams responded. "Not infringed."

Much of the compositional elements that appear similar between the two songs—cow bells, the falsetto, keyboards—were not in the sheet music submitted to the copyright office for "Got to Give It Up." In their lawsuit, Williams and Thicke claim that the Gaye family was "claiming ownership of an entire genre, as opposed to a specific work."

"Blurred Lines" earned a profit of more than $16 million, on which the Gaye family claims it is owed performance fees, mechanical royalties, and 50 percent of publishing profit. In court, Williams and Thicke's attorneys argue the success of "Blurred Lines" wasn't just about the song. Via Buzzfeed News:

Experts for Williams and Thicke disputed that the massive success of the song had much to do with its composition. Universal Music Group spent about $3 million marketing the song, and its video went viral.

"That copyright alone doesn't generate revenue or profit," said Doug Bania, an intellectual property expert.

"Are you truly telling us music doesn't sell a song?" Gaye family attorney Richard Busch asked. "Does Mr. Williams agree with you?"

Earlier this year, representatives for Tom Petty approached Sam Smith over similarities they said they heard between a Petty song and Smith's single "Stay With Me," which eventually won a Grammy. In that case Smith said he'd never heard the Petty song, "Won't Back Down," and agreed to pay royalties and share songwriting credits. Petty and the other "Won't Back Down songwriter, however, were not recognized by the Grammys.

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  1. The blurred models can infringe my copyright anytime they want, if you know what I’m saying, and I think that you do.

  2. “Are you truly telling us music doesn’t sell a song?” Gaye family attorney Richard Busch asked.

    In this case I think titties sold the song.

    1. Compare the number of copies of YYZ singles sold vs. the number of Blurred Lines singles (feel free to adjust for whatever), and I think you’ll find your answer.

      1. Compare the number of copies of YYZ singles sold…

        Great, that’s gonna be in my head all day now.

        *makes note to peruse Rush collection later*

        1. I blew the minds of some millennials when I played YYZ on Guitar Hero.

      2. I like Rush as much as anyone. And as good a composition as YYZ is, I think there are reasons besides lack of titties for it’s relatively low mainstream success.

        My theory about why pop music sells is that most people aren’t really interested in music very much. They want things that have a good beat, or work well as background and aren’t really interested in the things that serious musicians and nerdy Rush fans are interested in. Which is fine.

        That said, I’m not familiar with this song, but Pharrell Williams seems to be a pretty talented guy.

    2. Just watched the video. The success of that song was all about the titties in the video.

      1. I remember hearing it on the radio before I’d seen the video, and my five year old daughter complained when I changed the station.

  3. OT: Incentivized Failure?…

    (Bloomberg) — McDonald’s Corp., the world’s largest restaurant chain, will pay former Chief Executive Officer Don Thompson $3 million to consult for the company in the next year.

    Thompson, who presided over a sales slump that forced him from the CEO job after less than three years, will receive the money in two cash payments, the Oak Brook, Illinois-based company said Tuesday in a filing. He also agreed to extend his non-compete clause to two years, longer than the company’s customary 18-month agreement.

    1. I muse be missing something – six extra months of noncompetition from *this* guy is worth three million dollars?

      1. I say, *make* him compete with McDonalds, so he can give the competition the benefit of the same business genius which got him out of a job in the first place.

  4. Just as Joseph said I’m alarmed that a stay at home mom can earn $5046 in 4 weeks on the computer .
    check out the post right here …… ??????

    1. Joseph is a dick

      1. Yeah, why would you be ‘alarmed’ unless you were an arsehole.

  5. And how long is it before nobody can legally write an original song anymore?

    I mean there are only so many combinations of notes that one can put together and have them come out sounding like a good song so eventually every song will by necessity appear to be derivative of some earlier song whether the artist had ever heard it or not.

    1. His Majesty says there are too many notes…cut a few, and it will be perfect!

    2. And how long is it before nobody can legally write an original song anymore?

      There is actually an answer!

        1. Four chords, forty years of tunes….

          Axis of Awesome

      1. Really interesting stuff there.

        Course he doesn’t quite answer my question. Yeah there are 79 Billion potential melodies, but how many of them fall into that “interesting” range, then how many of them actually sound pleasing to the ear.

        Factor those in and you’re down into the millions to maybe tens of millions range.

        Then since we are only talking about short snippets of a song that need to be “infringing” combined with ever lengthening copyright periods and it is likely that we are rapidly approaching the point where every new song could legitimately be shown to be infringing on some earlier copyright because of matching melodies

        1. A good friend of mine, who I’ve been playing music with for many years, had this to say about musical originality: “If something hasn’t been done before, it’s probably not a good idea.”

    3. There hasn’t been anything original in music since the death of Josquin Des Prez.

  6. Went out to you tube and listened to both songs. Same instruments, similar styles, different songs. Case closed.

    1. Indeed. Is the “homage” illegal now?

  7. I’m just going to sit back and enjoy this brave new world you IP-ers have constructed for us. It’s very entertaining, like watching cannibals having a dinner party.

  8. The 41-year-old Williams testified that Marvin Gaye and 70s soul were part of the musical milieu in which he grew up

    The 70s ended when he was ~7. I didn’t even know the songs on the radio contained words until I was like 10. It’s like when I hear guys in their 30s talk about how classic rock as if they grew up listening to it…at least when it was new.

    1. Hm. You grew up only listening to the radio? My kids grew up listening to 70’s Alice Cooper, AC/DC and Black Sabbath…hint the kids weren’t born til the late 80s-early 90’s. I hate radio, but I have a HUGE 8-track, vinyl, tape, cd, mp3 collection. I personally grew up listening to big band and I certainly wasn’t born in the 20s. (Yeah my parents were weird).

      1. Disclaimer: I’m far from a music buff to begin with. I’m one of those strange people who doesn’t have to ride the bus with ear buds in. But when it hit for me, it was your basic Top 40 stuff on the radio early/mid 80s. My original (and still) favorite was ZZ Top partly due to their ground breaking videos, but I had to backtrack to catch up to their pre-80s stuff. My folks had vinyl, but it was anything but 70s rock, mostly 60’s era stuff. Now a days my taste moves with along with the present time. Occasionally I dip back into it.

    2. He probably did grow up listening to that music. I’m the same age and I grew up on the Beatles and the Stones, by listening to my parents’ albums.

    3. I grew up listening to what my parents listened to. Shit, Marvin Gaye and 70s soul were also part of the musical milieu I grew up in, and I’m 10 years younger than Williams.

    4. It is fun watching the old guard cannibalizing it’s own trying to grasp every last dollar as their entire industry collapses because the barriers to entry are GONE.

      Now anyone with a modicum of talent can make music, and even a professional quality music video and post them on youtube and earn a steady side income or better from it.

      Take this guy who does songs about video games…

      That is far better than 90% of the shit that makes it to the radio these days

  9. This is an even worse theft than when James Cameron culturally appropriated the golem from a jew!

  10. “Blurred Lines,” the song date rape listens to when it wants to dance.

    What kind of ridiculously sheltered upbringing have you had if you’ve never heard “Won’t Back Down,” though? Is Sam Smith Amish?

    1. I try not to listen to “Won’t Back Down” as frequently as possible.

      1. I consider that song the low point of Petty’s career.

        1. Lower than “Free Fallin'”?

          1. heh now…
            not gonna stand for any pretty petty petty-bashing on my watch…

            have not made any comparison listening among the songs mentioned, and don’t really care that much (millionaires fighting over who gets a slice of their millionaire pie? well, i care in theory, but not in practice); BUT, as i recall, it DOES NOT MATTER if the ‘copying’ was done purposefully or not, george harrison was dinged for ‘my sweet lord’ even though (again, NOT having listened/compared the songs) he did so totally unintentionally, subconsciously… that is no ‘legal defense’…

            oh, you copied the beatles ‘michelle’ note for note, word for word, but you didn’t ‘intend’ to, well that’s okay then…

            just would say, this is the result of the insane so-called ‘intellectual property’ laws being extended to infinity and beyond…

        2. lower than the Postman?

      2. Riven’s much more of a “Don’t Come Around Here No More” person. And then she got high.

        1. The local radio station was still using reel to reel when that came out. I remember them forgetting to adjust the speed and playing it at about half speed one time. Made it much more interesting.

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  12. True* story – half of Toby Keith’s songs are ripped off from Metallica’s *Don’t Tread on Me.*

    *depending on your definition of “true”

  13. ripped off the “sound” and “feel”

    Can anyone tell me how the hell it is possible to claim IP on “sound and feel” or “look and feel”? Pretty much it sounds like a demand for monopoly power over anything that’s kinda, sorta, like your own. The very existence of such claims are Exhibit A for the need for IP reform.

    1. I forget which studio but one of them successfully sued John Fogerty for sounding too much like himself after he left CCR and went solo with another studio

      1. Saul Zaentz – the subject of the song Vanz Kant Danz

      2. John Fogerty is the worst. The studio probably sued him just as payback for the myriad lawsuits he had filed in his brief, uninteresting musical career.

        1. Damn kids and your Dan Fogleberg records.

      3. It was Fogerty’s old record label, which owned the CCR recording copyrights. They claimed “Old Man Down the Road” used the same chorus as their Fogerty property “Run Through the Jungle”. They lost, and Fogerty eventually got a Supreme Court case to recover his legal costs. The tunes are somewhat similar (you could seamlessly medley the tunes anyway), but these things are never a perfect judgement.
        It’s a messy system, but the total absence of one would likely put a lot of good songwriters out of work.

      4. No. Fogerty won.…..tasy,_Inc.

    2. Sound & feel or look & feel could fall under trade dress.

    3. You can claim anything you want. Hopefully the claims will be laughed out of court.

    4. It’s the same basis for all IP : FYTW

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  15. “Are you truly telling us music doesn’t sell a song?”

    Looking at the last decade or two of shit that got into the top 40, I don’t know how he can even ask that question.


  16. The best part of this whole thing is how Robin Thicke had to admit he was drunk and or high the entire time and he has very little talent.

    I had an experience yesterday where the “feelz” of a song reminded me of a song from the late 90s. I immediately called Fueled By Ramen to see if they could somehow get their pound of flesh from the Foo Fighters. Let no moderate similarity go unpunished.

  17. Ah, the inevitable end point of IP and its never-ending expansion. Since virtually all art is derivative to a certain degree, expansive IP laws will end up making earlier artists able to sue just about anyone new and parasite onto their profits.

    The fact that IP cannot be clearly indicated in this case should tell you all you need to know about the validity of the concept. No one has any trouble determining if your car is your car. But if “hey your music sounds vaguely like mine, I want money!” doesn’t give you pause…

    1. Even worse, your music sounds vaguely like my dead husband/fathers I want money.

      I mean at least if it was the artist himself suing there is some room that it could be personal pride or offense that was driving the suit rather than a pure money grab. When the artist is dead and it’s his family though?

      1. The very system encourages this kind of bullshit. Sue someone, and much of the time if they think they’ll get ruled against, they’ll just settle. If they don’t, maybe you win in court anyway. Portray yourself as old or needing money because your artist spouse is dead and you become sympathetic.

        1. The worst case of this is Men at Work getting sued because “Down Under” had a flute line similar to an Aussie kids song from the 1920’s. A company had bought the copyright to it (the original composer died long before) and sued the shit out of MaW. The flute/sax player killed himself soon after they lost.

  18. OMG they didn’t capture the ‘feel’ of the song. They straight up played the same notes. I’ve listened to the songs back-to-back. There is no doubt in my mind a copyright infringement was made with ‘Blurred Lines.’

    1. F#?

    2. If you play Blurred Lines on a piano, just singing the words with the chords and melody, it’s easy to understand that Williams is 100% on the mark with his assessment. They are two totally different songs. The Gaye family thinks it owns the copyright to a drum pattern with a reggae keyboard part. That’s silly, and I bet if we cared to we could find a track that precedes Got To Give It Up for the same basic feel.
      Interestingly, there is a song on the radio currently in fairly regular rotation (I hear it on the “rock” station in D.C. when I bother to tune in, but haven’t caught the title dammit) that you could totally sing Let’s Get It On to. It’s the same I-iii-IV-V progression as the Gaye hit and the singer whips out a lot of similar sounding melodic contours. Not as big a hit as Blurred Lines I guess but the Gayes would have much better standing there.

    3. They didn’t play the same notes. The songs have a similar sound and feel but no, the music isn’t an identical copy.

  19. I think this one (concatenate lines for URL):

    deliberately plays on the sound of this one (concatenate likewise)

    as an homage, pastiche, or parody, without copying melody or violating anything I’d consider copyrightable. I haven’t gotten anyone else to say they hear the cx, though. See what you think. I love that sort of thing.

    I also think it’s clever the way “Promises” uses a cartoon version of the album cover of “Promises, Promises”, although there’s no cx other than the title.

  20. Here’s a fun one: Listen to Lenny Kravitz’s 90s hit “It Ain’t Over til it’s Over”, then put on Earth Wind and Fire’s 70s hit “That’s the Way of the World”. You can totally sing the chorus of the EWF song over Lenny’s tune, with the all chord modulations, and Lenny’s melody sounds like a cleverly reverse-engineered version of the EWF melody. I think both songs are great.

    1. I believe Kravitz’s song was actually meant to be an open homage/ripoff of EWF. I don’t think it’s aged particularly well–it’s clearly crafted with late 80s/early 90s musical tastes in mind, as if Lenny picked it up as a throwaway from Terrence Trent D’Arby–but I’ll throw it on once in a while for the nostalgia factor and the gorgeous melodies. I can’t believe it’s not played more often on “Mix” radio stations.

  21. MORE COWBELL!!!!1!11!11

  22. I just listened to both songs.
    Ok, some pretty strong similarities, same high voice, same cowbell, same beat… but note for note identical? I don’t think so…

  23. Pharrell’s main contribution to the music world was replacing snare drums with “claps and snaps

    That may not sound like much, but anyone who made beats (*hand raised) basically saw the entire production world flip overnight and hasn’t really changed much since then. he’s probably one of 2-3 people in the last 20 years who’ve completely influenced the way all music gets made.

    1. Correct me if I’m wrong, but that shit has been around for a loooooooong time.

      1. How long is looooooooong? Williams has been producing for quite a while.

      2. You’re basically wrong

        between pharrell and timbaland, they pretty much changed the way all modern ‘urban*’ music sounds. The influence was so ubiquitous that – much like your comment – people seem to assume that things have ‘always been that way’. between 2002-2006 they produced pretty much every hit on the radio. or such a high proportion of them it was ridiculous. Everything since then has been variations on their basic approach.

        (*urban being the catch-all term for ‘sequenced’ music made by ‘producers’ rather than ‘performers’; although they can sometimes – like pharrell – do that too)

        fwiw, another person i think will eventually get credit for having similar impact is actually a former buddy of mine. “Diplo”, who is now producing cuts for madonna’s new record.

        1. Namedropping gayness. I once blew Moby….

    2. This is true. He seems like a real, legitimate talent as well. As deadful as pop stars and pop music can be, there really are some talented and skilled people behind the scenes.

  24. Me Iceman Ogg. Me first man bang stretched animal skin with stick.
    Me sue you all.

  25. What a load of shit. Unless the copied substantial parts of the lyrics or melody or actual recordings of the older song, it isn’t copying someone else’s work. That’s almost as idiotic as the families of famous artists being able to support themselves this way. I think copyright for a limited term is OK, but it shouldn’t go beyond the lifetime of the author. And should be strictly limited for corporations. More like patents really.

    1. I tend to agree with you.
      The author (or inventor, or whatever) should be given the opportunity to profit from the work (by having an effective monopoly on it) until such a time as it is “reasonable” to allow others to copy it for profit.
      In the case of songs, books or movies, this may just be a few years. In the case of widget design or pharmaceuticals, it could be longer.

      1. Patents are generally good for 14 years I think. That seems like plenty for copyright as well.

        Imagine the interesting stuff you could put together if all music and movies through the 90s was public domain. Or if you could just get ebooks of everything published up until then for free.

        1. I agree.
          Some outfits are actually OK with their view on IP, like the Grateful Dead used to allow recording devices at concerts, or Gerry Rafferty’s label letting Foo Fighters cover “Baker Street” on an album, or CBS putting digitally remastered episodes of Star Trek TOS on you-tube for folk to watch for free.
          Still, some drugs cost $100’s of millions to develop and test before they can hit the market.
          If it’s a drug that is only rarely needed, it could take decades for the innovators to show a profit, and if we don’t let innovators show a profit, we threaten innovation.

          1. The problem is you are assuming that innovators will not also innovate novel new business models that allow them to profit from their other innovations in the absence of IP protections.

            1. If you have an alternate model of how to profit from tens of thousands of man hours and hundreds of millions of dollars of investments without IP protections, I’m all ears.

              1. Remove the endless government regulations and restrictions in the case of drugs and it won’t cost 100’s of millions.

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  27. The right to not be copied (copyright) existed in England since 1734 but the word was first used in law around 1766 in Sir William Blackstone’s second volume of Commentaries on the laws of England in the twenty-sixth chapter on page 406. This human right was given up by the United States in 1790 with passage of the Copy[rite] Act of 1790 erasing or ignoring the first eighty years of intellectual property laws by copying the 1710 Statute of Anne from England nearly verbatim and ignoring the 1734 Engravers Act or the 1766 Hogarth’s Act extending and transferring the rights established by the 1734 Engravers Act to the lifetime of an artists surviving spouse.

    The limited democracy foundation of the United States was overthrown by corporate American capitalism between 1790 and Citizens United and would be irreversible without the LAST AMENDMENT that might never happen.

  28. ” In their lawsuit, Williams and Thicke claim that the Gaye family was “claiming ownership of an entire genre, as opposed to a specific work.”

    This really is the key here. “Similarity” and “infringement” are not the same thing. There has to be ‘similarity’ in the sense that there are identical notes or lyrics put into a similar structure that sound the same. (see the Sam Smith case cited at the end where they literally lifted the hook from Tom Petty and used it for their song)

    While stylistically the Thicke song and the Gaye song sound like they belong in the same family of music I fail to see any copyrightable that Gaye can make a cognizable claim to. I find it especially laughable that the Gaye attorneys cite the use of falsetto as something he can lay any sort of claim to. Falsetto has been a musical technique for well over 500 years. Things that are in public domain can’t be subject to copyright.

    I’m not sure how this case hasn’t been tossed on a 12(b)(6) yet but there must be something in the evidence that the judge still wants to explore.

  29. When a brand new song comes on the radio and you immediately think it’s a song from 40 years ago, you might be guilty of copyright infringement.

    These modern day songwriters should just admit they have no talent and are just serial plagiarists.

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