Cultural Appropriation and Copyright Infringement in Blurred Lines

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As Picasso once said, 'Good artists borrow, great artists steal,' and pop culture has been built on the foundation of inspiration from the past. In a sense, just about any song imaginable is a collection of ideas that preceded it. In 2013 the music industry was shocked by a lawsuit over whether Robin Thicke’s single “Blurred Lines” was merely a mere coincidence copy of a song by Marvin Gaye, or had it infringed its way across the copyright border. “Thicke’s single became the top-selling single of the year globally (selling over 14.8 million units), spent the longest time at the top of the Billboard’s Hot 100, set the all-time record for reaching the largest US radio audience, and also reached no. 1 in 80 countries” (Smith, “'Blurred Lines' Infringed on Marvin Gaye Copyright, Jury Rules.”). While many debates have been sparked about the legal aspect of this case and its verdict set for future copyright law and artistic freedoms, there are causes for speculation regarding the cultural appropriation, female exploitation and overall differentiation between both singles.

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The societal accusations and cultural appropriation surrounding Robin Thicke’s popular “Blurred Lines” single has to lead to the revaluation of whether the song had crossed the lines of these accusations alongside the copyright infringement. Cultural appropriation occurs when someone decides to purely imitate aspects of a culture without understanding the culture itself. A privileged community uses something (a justice movement, style of clothing, dance, language, etc.) that is a part of a minority communities culture and uses it as their own without citing credit, and often doing it wrong. “The song, given who ended up singing it and getting the greater public recognition for it—the white singer, Thicke—is definitely a form of cultural appropriation, albeit a “lite” version. I say “lite” because the song’s co-writer, Williams, who is black, also benefits financially (I am assuming 50–50) from its sales. Nevertheless, I am not completely ready to let go of the term “cultural appropriation” because the dramatic economic success of the song is definitely tied to the fact that the primary singer is white” (Lester 234). It is equally important to be aware of the cultures that are influenced by creative processes and to honour and respect those cultures with public recognition, and sometimes even compensation when seen reasonable. Innovation in art is as beneficial for the artist as it is for the culture, as long as the artist is mindful of and recognizes the traditions from where their inspiration came, especially when the source of the inspiration is innovative in its own right. In by doing so, Thicke had utilized Gaye’s music as a platform to deviate and venture into a different field of listeners by knowingly used it as a way to gather more attention for himself. Alongside how blurred lines disrespected the African community, it also knowingly downgraded and oppressed the understanding of women in their music video, a part of popular culture, with over 18 million views on YouTube. Women, whether topless or not, parade across the screen as visual objects, riding bikes and holding goats and throwing dice, as mere “things” to observe while the music is being performed by men. “Okay, now he was close, tried to domesticate you. But you’re an animal, baby it’s in your nature. Just let me liberate you, you don’t need no papers, that man is not your maker…But you’re a good girl, the way you grab me, must wanna get nasty, go ahead get at me…” (Thicke & Williams) The lyrics reference women’s “papers”, assuming that women have an animalistic component and that is why they dress or act the way they do. Most women in music videos are required to wear next to nothing, while men have the privilege of keeping their clothes on and earning the same degree of attention, or more. The idea that consent is a ‘blurry’ concept is deeply rooted in the way sexual assault is represented in the media, our culture, the education system and, the legal system. It is what drives many to doubt the veracity of rape allegations and why many rape survivors never report their cases. The song conveys a strong message about the beliefs and ideologies of the writers and artists, subsequently, it impacts Marvin Gaye’s reputation as well. As both songs become linked together and seen as similar in the eyes of the audiences, his reputation is slightly tarnished because of Thicke’s presentation on women in the video. Coming from an African community and having the pleasure of producing successful hits, then having to be subjected to having a caucasian male taking credit for your creation that comes along with tons of cultural appropriation and negative outlook from the feminist community, allows for his fans and family to take the copyright case to a different level. It's not just about the money it's about how Robin Thicke allowed and transformed Gaye’s song and creation into a different more inappropriate form of media, in a way of defamation.

The two songs aren’t actually rhythmically in terms of the harmony or the melody similar beyond the beat: the lead vocal lines are far different, with Thicke sticking to simple rhythms on beat while Gaye uses off-beat notes with varied lengths. The large point is that the harmonies are not the same. In fact, they’re not even similar. “They’re set in different keys, with Thicke’s song in G major and Gaye’s in A major — but even if they weren’t, Gaye’s composition still has a different set of chords and Thicke uses a clever twist that Gaye doesn’t. There are literally only two chords in “Blurred Lines”; a lot of people have inappropriately labeled it G to D, but it’s actually C/G to D. That’s one of the gratifying things about the song: because the C chord doesn’t have a C in the bass, it maintains tension throughout”(Keyes, Musical Musings: The Case for Rethinking Music Copyright Protection). The progression is from the different chords, and is one of the most common sets of harmonies in all of music; it happens in every single basic pop song, and in classical compositions. On the other hand, “Got to Give it Up” has twice as many chords as “Blurred Lines” does. The strongest point to make here is that even if both songs were placed in the same key, “Got To Give It Up” and “Blurred Lines” would not be mistaken for the same song. If the similarities in chords are enough for the songwriters to owe Gaye; the chord progression to “Got To Give It Up” is quite common in soul music and can be heard in many famous songs. The next key fact of both songs is that there is no confusion at all that there are two different melodies. The melody, for all intents and purposes, is the aspect of songs most people notice first. It’s what you end up whistling on your commute and singing in the shower. “The “hey, hey, hey” bit leaves the scale of the song by using a chromatic passing tone — C, C#, D. Marvin Gaye’s melody stays entirely in the scale. (Another small conceit: the bass in Gaye’s work uses the same chromatic passing motion as the “hey, hey, hey” part, but the court was ruling that the fill Gaye plays on synth bass was ripped off by three uses of “hey” (Pantaloni 4). Gaye’s“Got To Give It Up” opens with a melodic tune that spans the same distance as the entirety of Thicke’s song. In Gaye’s voice he routinely goes up and down in scale notes while in “Blurred Lines” it is the opposite, “the reason everyone seems to be able to sing along with Thicke isn’t just that the lyrics are sexual assault mottos, but rather, that they’re sung entirely within the first five notes of the major scale (i.e. the petascale)” (Pantaloni 2). Aside from the clear fact that Marvin Gaye’s song is nearly three times as long as “Blurred Lines,” it’s still obvious that the melodies, harmonies, chord progressions, and rhythms are different. The production of both singles is quite different; with the drum sounds and an under-microphoned live track, they have a similar groove and vibe, but nearly nothing else is a match. The way in which audiences perceive and took in both songs were completely different based on their preferences.

The copyright law is a threat to creativity, with this particular case the verdict, in this case, threatens to punish songwriters for creating new music that is inspired by prior works. “Musicologists have even developed an entire field of study to document and study the pervasive phenomenon of borrowing in music, classical to contemporary, among even the most successful and influential artists. Borrowing in music composition should not be surprising, given the limited number of musical notes and even more limited number of harmonious combinations of notes that exist, not to mention the growing body of scientific research showing universal patterns in music among humans” (Lee, “Can 'Fair Use' Clear Up Music's Blurred Lines on Copyright?). The verdict was a huge win for the Gaye family and also a win for the many artists, especially African American artists in the United States, who have historically suffered unfair use of and unequal compensation for their work, or who have been denied access to copyright their original creations. The verdict is also a victory for those whose creative intellectual property that has only recently been valued and upheld by law in copyright. On the other hand, because of the traditional and structural approach to presenting the case, the verdict could also lead to some artists feeling limited by their creative license to explore the sounds and styles of previous eras, or it might encourage shrill industry executives to create practices that exploit both the freedoms and limitations of copyrighted and potentially copyrightable material. This significant case asks for new considerations of what constitutes intellectual property in music, for examining the full range of music’s components beyond just listening, and for how understanding copyright potential of music beyond its textual and recorded basis. If artists begin to restructure themselves around the history and recent developments in copyright, as well as ideas of what might constitute property in music (i.e., sound and groove), it is possible for a changes to the 1976 Copyright Act that reflect 21st century needs, rather than trying to find ways around outdated laws. Currently, the copyright law states that “As such, under copyright law, to establish a claim for infringement, Gaye’s family needed to establish: (1) they owned a valid copyright in the work alleged to have been infringed, and (2) the infringing party copied protected elements of that work. When proof of direct copying is not available, a work may be considered copied if the two works are found to be substantially similar.” ( Maya ‘Blurred Lines’ Verdict Broadens Copyright Protection.”). In which both aspects Thicke and Williams did infringe upon these rights, and allowed for Gaye’s family to pursue the case. 

Ultimately, in the copyright case, the jury found in favor of Marvin Gaye’s family and the verdict was issued. The Blurred Lines artists, Robin Thicke, and Pharrell Williams were extremely disappointed in the outcome of the case and will surely appeal the decision. In a joint statement following the suit, Thicke, Williams, and T.I. asserted “While we respect the judicial process, we are extremely disappointed in the ruling made today, which sets a horrible precedent for music and creativity going forward.” (Smith, “'Blurred Lines' Infringed on Marvin Gaye Copyright, Jury Rules.”) Up until now, it was somewhat understood that one could not copyright a “vibe” or “feel” or genre but this case set a landmark for how future cases would play out. Upholding the verdict of this case as it stands might say otherwise. Some individuals argue that this is a standard copyright infringement case that will have no legit implications on songwriters while others speculate that such a decision may open gates to a wider understanding of copyright infringement, which could dramatically shift the creativity of writers in the future. 

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