Robin Thicke Sues Marvin Gaye's Family To Prevent Being Sued By Marvin Gaye's Family

robin-thicke-pharrell-ti

John F. Kennedy once said that "victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan."  This is never more true than in the entertainment world, which is why Robin Thicke, Pharrell Williams, and T.I. (aka Clifford Harris Jr.) have decided to sue Marvin Gaye's family and Bridgeport Music in order to deny their parental rights to Blurred Lines.

The Gaye family claims that Blurred Lines ripped off Marvin Gaye's Got To Give It Up, and they're demanding a substantial monetary payout.  If they don't get it, they'll sue for copyright infringement.  In response to the threat of legal action, Thicke preemptively sued them and is seeking a declaration from the court that Blurred Lines doesn't infringe Got To Give It Up.

Before we go any further, listen to both songs and compare for yourself.

Here's the SFW version of Blurred Lines:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yyDUC1LUXSU&w=560&h=315]

And here's Got To Give It Up:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fp7Q1OAzITM&w=420&h=315]

The lawsuit also contains allegations by Bridgeport Music that Blurred Lines plagiarized Funkadelic's Sexy Ways:

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JxKOQ3SfGhg&w=560&h=315]

Now I consider myself something of a musical ignoramus, but even I can tell when one thing sounds like another thing.  While there are some similarities between the songs, primarily because of the up-tempo beat, I think it's pretty clear that Blurred Lines is a wholly separate entity.  Which means no infringement took place because copyright law doesn't protect individual elements of a work when those elements are commonly used in an industry or genre (known in the legal biz as "scènes à faire").   So in the hip-hop/R&B world, where uptempo bass-heavy beats are the norm, that similarity by itself would not be enough to constitute copyright infringement.  There would have to be greater similarities between the songs in the lyrics and melody for a court to find some form of plagiarism.

So, if Thicke isn't in danger of losing an infringement case, then why did he sue the Gaye family in such an aggressive fashion, especially after stating in his complaint that he has the "utmost respect for and admiration of Marvin Gaye, Funkadelic and their musical legacies"?  Certainly Thicke and his partners aren't content to share the glory with 997 other fathers.  Blurred Lines is THE most talked about song of the summer.  It's a legitimate phenomenon.  Why should they share the substantial revenues they'll accrue with another artist?  Even if that artist inspired them to begin with?

But I actually think this lawsuit is less about money than about sending a message.  See, Blurred Lines is a real winner, and if Thicke can be bullied into settling out of court for several hundred thousand dollars in order to avoid a long and costly trial... well that's a pretty easy way to make a few bucks.  Sadly, this type of thing isn't uncommon in the entertainment world.  In fact, it's downright mundane.

"Your hit song/TV show/movie has something vaguely in common with my lesser known song/TV show/movie and if you don't pay me, I'll tie you up in litigation for years."

It's a very common tale.  My guess is that Thicke decided to take the fight to the Gaye family to show that he can't be bullied.  Will this type of preemptive lawsuit work or will a judge dismiss it and basically tell Thicke to wait until he gets sued?  I have no reason to believe it won't have the desired effect.  If it does, I think you'll see a lot more of these preemptive lawsuits.  If it doesn't, the moral of the story will remain the same: you can't be a hit without people bleeding you for everything you're worth.

Greg Kanaan

The [Legal] Artist, Boston, MA, USA