Why the 'Blurred Lines' Ruling Is All Wrong and Sets a Terrible Precedent for the Future of Music
I wonder if Pharrell Williams regrets admitting in court that he was channelling “that '70s feeling” when he wrote "Blurred Lines." He must be wondering whether the estate of Curtis Mayfield will be next in line for a multimillion-pound payout. Williams’ "Happy," another international No 1, was inspired by Mayfield's distinctive style, not borrowing from any one specific song but sung in the high, dry style of the Chicago soul legend. Prior to the Blurred Lines judgment—in which a jury awarded $4.7 million to Marvin Gaye's family—everyone would have happily accepted it was a sincere tribute to a Pharrell forebear. Now it could easily be seen as appropriation.
Just how dangerous could this ruling prove? Williams and Robin Thicke haven’t been accused of sampling, stealing lyrics or melodies here, just the “feel” of Marvin Gaye’s "Got To Give It Up."
Let’s take a look back at beat groups of the mid-'60s (their hair, their suits), and listen to their harmonies. Whether it’s the Hollies in Britain, the Byrds in America, or regional heroes like Sweden’s Hep Stars, they all borrowed the “feel” of the Beatles. The Hep Stars featured a young Benny Andersson; could the Beatles also, by default, sue for a share of Abba’s royalties?
This isn’t idle speculation. Take ABKCO, which owns the rights to the Rolling Stones catalogue. When the Verve sampled a version of the Stones’ "The Last Time for Bittersweet Symphony," ABKCO successfully won 100% of the new song’s royalties. The Stones are hugely influential – "Sympathy For The Devil" alone was clearly an influence for Primal Scream’s "Loaded," the Jesus & Mary Chain’s "Nine Million Rainy Days," and large swaths of the Charlatans’ back catalogue.
Notions of originality and authenticity are at the heart of this. Presumably it hasn’t occurred to Nona Gaye – who says she now feels “free from …Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke’s chains” – that her own father would have taken inspiration from other performers and other records. An open admirer of Nat King Cole, Marvin Gaye recorded covers of "Too Young," "Mona Lisa" and "Straighten Up And Fly Right." Cole was his benchmark as a singer, and you can hear Gaye going for his restrained emotion and light, soulful style on songs like "I Want You" and "What’s Goin' On." Nobody in their right mind would suggest Gaye is illegally channeling the feel of Nat King Cole, or that Natalie Cole should be suing the Gaye estate any time soon.
If anyone has ever compared a new band to Saint Etienne, I’ve been flattered that we might be an influence. Almost always, it has been clear to me that the other group simply has similar influences. I’m not about to call my lawyers and instruct them to sue the Cardigans or Broadcast for bearing a vague resemblance to us. In the case of both bands, we became friends as our interests (from Elvis to '60s cinema to amateur football) frequently overlapped. It was inevitable, as enthusiastic, creative people immersed in pop culture, that our music would end up having some similarities. It would never have occurred to me that these groups were doing anything illegal. Besides, I’ve never been quiet about my own songwriting influences, not until now, anyway.
Songwriter will often go for the feel of existing songs. It’s no secret that the strings on "Eleanor Rigby" were almost directly lifted from the soundtrack of Truffaut’s "Fahrenheit 451," which Paul McCartney had seen at the cinema a few days before the song was recorded. Pop song writers need to have their receptors tuned in to what’s new and different – it’s their job. Then, as artists, and if they have the talent, they will develop.
Stargate, the Norwegian production team, began as a cut-price copy of the Max Martin stable. Their first UK No 1 was in 2000 with Billie Piper’s "Day And Night," sounded like a third-generation photocopy of Martin’s hits with Britney Spears. Yet within a few years, Stargate had developed their own style, produced Rihanna’s seismic hit "The Only Girl in the World," and were themselves widely influential. And so pop music develops and grows.
In a 2013 readers poll in Billboard, 46% of people said of "Blurred Lines" and "Got To Give It Up" that “the songs sound similar, but not similar enough to draw a lawsuit.” Williams and Thicke’s lawyer has said that “to be inspired by Marvin Gaye is an honorable thing.” It’s a terrible shame, and an absolute disaster for music, that Gaye’s family can’t accept that.