Blurred Lines in Copyright Law

by Pamela Williams Kelly on Apr. 17, 2016

Intellectual Property Copyright Intellectual Property 

Summary: Copyright law protects original works and any derivative works that are created from the original. But copyright law is based on tangible work—not a sound or feel.

"Blurred Lines" in Copyright Law

By: Pamela Williams Kelly, Esq. 

The new term for the “old days” is “throwback.” And it is interesting to note that many artists are beginning to incorporate the beats and rhythms from another era in today’s music. While that throwback sound may be new to today’s generations, it is quite familiar and identifiable to those of us who lived and “grooved” to that music. And when a throwback song of today has similar melodies and a similar sound cultivated by legendary artists like Marvin Gaye and the Funkadelics, you better believe that lawsuits are on the horizon. And that is exactly what happened when last summer’s hit, “Blurred Lines,” by Robin Thicke raced up the music charts.

The family of Marvin Gaye and Bridgeport Music (which owns some of of Funkadelic’s compositions) repeatedly claimed that Blurred Lines was too similar to copyrighted music compositions to which they owned the rights. Marvin Gaye’s family was referring to the hit, “Got to Give It Up,” while Bridgeport Music was referencing Funkadelic’s single, “Sexy Ways.” Since the dispute could not be silenced in private, it went public.

Robin Thicke, along with Pharrell Williams and Clifford Harris, Jr. (better known as T.I.), filed a lawsuit in a California federal court for a declaratory judgment. This type of lawsuit asks the court to decide the rights and obligations of the parties. In this case, the plaintiffs wants the court to decide if there has been any unlawful use of the artists’ songs and if Marvin Gaye’s family even owns the rights to Got to Give It Up to pursue a copyright infringement action. And, lastly, the lawsuit also asks the court to determine if music created today with a similar sound from another era is sufficient to entitle the defendants to any monetary compensation.

Copyright law protects original works and any derivative works that are created from the original. But copyright law is based on tangible work—not a sound or feel. In this case, the copyrighted element would be the music composition also known as melody and harmony. And those elements are usually written—a requirement under copyright law. Traditionally, a copyright dispute would be over a specific song or its composition. But that is not the source of the dispute in this case. In the Blurred Lines lawsuit, the defendants are claiming a copyright to a “sound and feel” of an era. Can the defendants own the sound and feel from 1977 when the songs were released?

While the court will provide the answer, it is worth noting that Sony/ATV, the publishing company that granted copyright permission to Robin Thicke for the use of Got to Give It Up, reached a monetary settlement with the Gaye family in January 2014. For the Gaye family, things just got a little less “blurred” with the “big payback.” I’ll let you know what happens when this case goes to trial.


 Note: The family of Marvin Gaye won this lawsuit; but it is currently on appeal.


Legal Disclaimer: This article is not intended to serve as legal or other advice nor does it create an attorney-client relationship. Attorney Kelly may be reached at or at 901-210-6551. 



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