“Blurred Lines” trial starts today

I wrote a piece for a new-ish publication called Ratter about the impending copyright trial between Pharrell, Robin Thicke, and the estate of Marvin Gaye, about whether the song “Blurred Lines” infringes on “Got To Give It Up.” In particular, the judge has done some unusual things in terms of what is allowable evidence, given that the Gaye song predates the lifting of notice-and-registration requirements, so only the material in the deposited copy of the sheet music is covered by copyright, under the 1909 Act. From my piece:

But in the last week or so, the docket filings have been piling up and the judge has changed course on that position. The Gaye estate had already filed mash-ups of the two songs to demonstrate how similar they were. Perhaps inspired by those recordings, the judge suggested an unusual and uniquely modern twist: both sides could try submitting versions of “Got To Give It Up” that consist of only the copyrighted elements of the song. In other words, both sides should agree how to distil “Got To Give It Up” down to its basic copyrighty essence — a fire mixtape of pure copyrightium.

Both sides eventually agreed to this condition and edited together the versions of “Got To Give It Up” the jury is likely to hear. If it’s not written down in the sheet music it’s off the table, meaning that the courtroom version of “Got To Give It Up” likely sounds like the MIDI version that auto-played on a Geocities home page, or a rendition by the animatronic band at Chuck E. Cheese.

Since that was published, my Ratter editor Kate was able to get and publish a copy of the actual courtroom recordings, and we were relieved to hear they sound about as weird as we’d hoped.

In a sense, I think this case mirrors Aereo, but for music. That is to say, it’s undisputed that Pharrell and Thicke wanted to emulate the sound of “Got To Give It Up,” and attempted to do so in a way that deliberately complied with the law. One of the perverse outcomes of Aereo is that it creates the sense that a careful compliance with the law might be deemed a violation—”too cute by half,” maybe, or a Rube Goldberg machine. I hope that doesn’t happen with “Blurred Lines,” because it’s the concept of musical influence that would suffer.

Now after several delays, the trial begins today! While I was hoping to make it, I’ll have to watch from afar.