On “Blurred Lines,” Copyright Infringement, and “Sample Trolls”

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Robin Thicke pushes back against copyright litigation threats.


Robin Thicke is apparently being accused of infringing copyrights in Marvin Gaye's "Got to Give It Up" and Funkadelic's "Sexy Ways" in his single "Blurred Lines." Apparently in response to demands that he pay licensing fees to the estate of Marvin Gaye and Bridgeport Music, Inc. (the company that has bought up the rights to Funkadelic's songs), Thicke is asking a court to state conclusively that he's not infringing copyrights.

According to Thicke's filing, "Blurred Lines" doesn't sample either of the other songs, and it doesn't copy any part of the music in them. Which would seem to preclude any sort of copyright claim against him. Nevertheless, if the court filing is accurate, Bridgeport and Gaye's estate are claiming infringement based upon a similarity of sound between the tracks.

Of course, you can't copyright a style or a feel; that'd be tantamount to letting someone copyright a genre of music.

If you want to hear for yourself whether "Blurred Lines" copies from either of the claimed songs, have a listen:

(For what it's worth, as Adam Pasick at Quartz points out, George Clinton of Funkadelic himself is siding with Thicke, tweeting:

@george_clinton: No sample of #Funkadelic's 'Sexy Ways' in @RobinThicke's 'Blurred Lines' - yet Armen Boladian thinks so? We support @RobinThicke @Pharrell!

Wait, Who's the Plaintiff Here?

A strangely large proportion of the coverage is taken up with the fact that it's Thicke filing suit against Bridgeport and the Gaye estate. I've actually been a bit surprised that people are making such a big deal of that, since suits for declaratory judgment aren't uncommon. In fact, it's a perfectly logical thing to do if people are sending you cease-and-desist letters, or demands for settlement. There's no reason they have to sue you, but you don't want to sit there for months on end as they keep insisting that you're breaking the law and should pay up, when you know you're not. Getting a court to say that you're in the right is often the best way to get the demands to stop and to get out from under the dangling sword of extremely expensive litigation. It also doesn't hurt that you can choose a court that's in your district, as opposed to the other party's (and also select one that has precedent that favors you and not the opposing party).

Bridgeport's Lawsuit Habit

Bridgeport Music, Inc. isn't a stranger to suits like this, though. Having bought (and George Clinton disputes the validity of the purchase) the rights to Funkadelic's music, the essentially one-man operation has made a habit of suing hip hop artists any time samples are used. It's happened to Jay-Z, Lil Wayne, and others—one piece by Tim Wu from 2006 characterized Bridgeport as a "sample troll."

Copyright geeks who aren't as familiar with the history of funk and hip hop (hi!) might be more familiar with Bridgeport as the driving force behind one of the worst appellate copyright decisions in recent years: Bridgeport v. Dimension Films. In 2005, Bridgeport sued N.W.A for using a Funkadelic sample in a track. The short sample was slowed down and looped, but whether it was recognizable to a listener was apparently irrelevant to the judge, who held that any sampling implicated copyright, no matter how small.

This case is another point in a history of overzealous litigation. The costs of defending a lawsuit can often be so high that it's worth it to pay up to make the threat go away. Scrape together a catalog of rights, and find enough defendants who lack the time or money to fight in court, and you can make a living by exacting settlement payments and licensing fees from a wide range of potential defendants. This time, though, it seems that Thicke and his team are willing to at least push back by filing first.

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