I honestly can’t believe it didn’t happen sooner. When I first heard Robin Thicke’s latest mega-number-one single, “Blurred Lines” I thought for sure I was listening to Marvin Gaye’s 1977 classic “Got to Give it Up”. From its baseline and cowbell to falsetto and ‘call and response’ elements the two songs are very, very similar. But similar enough to be considered plagiarism?
In an interesting move nearly unprecedented in the music industry, it was reported this week that Thicke and fellow songwriters Pharell Williams and T.I. have filed suit in Los Angeles federal court against Bridgeport Music, a Southfield, Michigan-based song publisher and the Marvin Gaye estate. The move is a preemptive strike in anticipation of a lawsuit from the Gaye family and Brideport; in essence Thicke and company are asking the court to mediate the matter now, prior to possible litigation being filed.
Proving plagiarism in music is typically quite difficult although not without precedent. The most famous case ever involved the Chiffon’s 1962 hit “He’s So Fine” and George Harrison’s 1971 tune, “My Sweet Lord”. Harrison lost to the tune of over $500,000. Chuck Berry actually received a songwriting credit on the Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ USA” as the courts ruled it was too close to Berry’s early classic, “Sweet Little Sixteen”. And, more recently, Vanilla Ice was frozen out of a percentage of royalties when he sampled the primary bass line from Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” for “Ice Ice Baby” without permission.
Just as common as such obvious and high profile cases, are lesser-known instances that would, at face value, appear to be as blatant as any other. Listen to Jethro Tull’s obscure “We Used to Know” next to the Eagles’ “Hotel California”. The latter, interestingly enough, opened for the former in the early 70s, at a time when Tull’s touring set featured the tune. And, the outstanding website Songfacts.com highlights a comparison I had never previously heard of: Jazzman Horace Silver’s 1965 “Song for My Father” and 1974’s “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number” from Steely Dan. The intros are absolutely identical.
In the end, with only seven chords to choose from, song similarities are seemingly impossible to avoid. And, intended or not, some artists actually seem to appreciate the appreciation. In fact, Pete Townsend is also in the news this week saying he considers similarities in boy band One Direction’s “Best Song Ever” to the Who’s “Baba O’Reilly” a tribute and sees no reason for legal action. In the case of Thicke vs. Gaye, however, for now the line between a ‘nod’ and ‘borrowing generously’ are indeed blurred, soon to be in the sights of the court system.