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While Robin Thicke and Pharrell Williams are mulling their legal options over a jury decision that will force them to give Marvin Gaye's children a $7.4 million payout, we’ve been wrestling with some questions of our own.
Did Pharrell and Thicke’s hit “Blurred Lines” really copy Gaye's 1977 song "Got To Give It Up"? And if, as the decision suggests, the pair didn’t deliberately infringe on the late crooner's tune, then why are they liable? And if the lines between inspiration and infringement are so, um, blurred, should the music industry currently be freaking out about the future of creativity?
MTV News turned to the experts to explain this whole mess, beginning with how the Gaye estate came out on top.
When you're dealing with a copyright infringement case, you start by listening to the two works in question and decide whether or not they sound similar, according to attorney Brian D. Caplan of Reitler Kailas & Rosenblatt LLC. If the pieces sound alike -- to the average person -- you bring in musicologists to explain why there are those similarities.
In this case, the Gayes couldn't play "Got To Give It Up" in court because the family only held rights to the sheet music but, in the end, the jury heard a stripped-down version of the piece, according to The Hollywood Reporter, and brought in musicologists who deemed elements of the songs similar.
"That was enough for the jury to say, 'Hey, this song sounds substantially similar to 'Blurred Lines,' has components similar to it -- not the entire song, components -- that sound substantially similar to components from the Marvin Gaye song as its shown on the sheet music," Caplan explained.
So, basically, the jury listened to their ears -- and to the experts -- and decided that Pharrell and Thicke had cribbed from Gaye.
The musicologists that were called in offered their professional opinions, but other experts would disagree -- like Joe Bennett, Professor of Popular Music and Dean of School of Music & Performing Arts, Bath Spa University.
“I’ve been following this case since the first accusations of copying came to light in October 2013," Bennett told MTV News. "The issue isn’t whether Thicke and Pharrell were influenced by Gaye -- they admitted as much at the time. Rather, the problem is that no part of the actual composition has been copied. There are no melodic sections, chord sequences or lyrics from 'Got To Give It Up' that appear in 'Blurred Lines.' "
"If I'd been a fly on the wall of that jury room, I would have buzzed pretty loudly," he added.
So, you know, the Gayes may have won, but that doesn't mean everyone thinks they should have.
Not a lot of copyright cases actually make it to trial, according to Caplan -- "or they get kicked out in motion practice in front of a judge, because a lot of cases are brought for non-protectable subject matter," he said.
This case, in the end, got to trial because back in October 2014, a California judge found the songs similar enough to proceed with the family's claim. Also, both sides kept fighting.
Some cases are also more likely to settle, according to Caplan, if the infringement is kind of an accident -- something called subliminal infringement. That may sound fancy, but it's basically when you hear a song, tuck it away in your brain unconsciously, then use elements of it when writing your own song. Thicke and Pharrell couldn't really claim subliminal infringement -- and we doubt they would want to -- because they're pretty openly spoken about being inspired by Gaye on that track.
A lot of people are currently freaking out about what this case will do to the future of creativity. "What worries me about this judgement is the precedent it sets," Bennett told MTV News. "All art is influenced by other art, and genres of music evolve because of clusters of individual songs that have musical similarities.
While we could totally see artists getting gun-shy after this jury decision, legally there's not really much to worry about -- at least according to the experts.
"A court ruling sets a precedent -- [but] a jury verdict is only based upon the facts that have been in front of the jury," Caplan told us. "So [the Gaye case] sets no precedent. It's not like the Supreme Court. It's not like the highest court in any state. It's not like the intermediate federal courts. Each time they make a decision, it's written in the book and sets a precedent for lawyers to look at in the future to say, 'This is the law.' When a jury comes back with a verdict, it's a factual determination, not a legal. They've heard the facts and they've said, 'Infringement.'"
In short: This case isn't going to make anyone more litigious than they already are.
One interesting fact about copyright infringement? As more and more music is made, it will become harder to prove that someone is cribbing from someone else -- which could be comforting for those aforementioned freaked-out artists.
"When you bring a copyright infringement case, you have to do a survey of prior art, which means prior songs and the use in those prior songs of similar note progressions or similar melodies," Caplan said. "The more prior art you find, the better off you are."
So, basically, if you use the word "party!" in your chorus, you're probably OK because tons of other people have used that word as such. "This sick beat" on the other hand...
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