Inspiration or infringement? A history of blurred lines

The music industry is reeling from a court decision that critics say could further blur the lines of artistic credit and chill creativity. A federal jury in Los Angeles ruled this week that singer Robin Thicke and producer Pharrell Williams had committed copyright infringement. The jurors decided Thicke’s ubiquitous 2013 single “Blurred Lines” had unduly borrowed from Marvin Gaye’s 1977 hit “Got to Give It Up,” and awarded Gaye’s family a whopping $7.4 million settlement.

Copyright infringement claims happen all the time in the music industry, so why is this one such a big deal?

The issue is the lack of specificity in what Williams and Thicke supposedly copied from Gaye. To be found guilty of copyright infringement in the past, you had to have taken melodies, chords or lyrics, none of which were copied from "Got to Give it Up" to "Blurred Lines." It's possible, however, to make a song that sounds strikingly similar to another without copying any one element of it exactly. What Williams and Thicke were found guilty of, was stealing a song's feel.

Similar-feeling songs have led to feuds between artists before, but the court's awarding of damages is new. Many are worried about the effect this ruling will have on the music industry if artists don't feel free to mimic their influences and draw from the past while creating music. Think about it: How often do you turn on the radio and hear something that's absolutely nothing like you've ever heard before?