In 2015, a unanimous jury found that the 2013 hit single ‘Blurred Lines’ had infringed upon copyrighted elements of Marvin Gaye’s 1977 song ‘Got to Give it Up’ and ordered Pharrell Williams and Robin Thicke to pay Gaye’s estate $7.3 million in damages. The court held that infringement could be found even if the song in dispute merely felt similar to the original work. In the wake of this landmark decision, the once sleepy legal field of music copyright infringement has seen a barrage of activity that has divided legal analysts and music industry professionals alike. On the one hand, there are those who feel that the ruling appropriately acts as a warning sign to artists who do not do their due diligence and properly credit any samples or interpolations they may use in their songs. On the flip side are those who argue that the ruling has incentivized bad-faith actors to pursue frivolous lawsuits, hindering musical creativity in the industry.
Sampling is an integral part of the music industry and has formed the basis of many well-loved songs. The origins of modern sampling can be traced back to the early 1970s when underground producers would take production elements of older songs and rework them for a modern audience. Unfortunately, most of these producers did not credit the works they sampled, and this practice remained prevalent in the industry for decades. Timbaland, for example, is infamously known for his masterful use of samples and interpolations throughout his work. However, he rarely credited the original songwriters whose work he drew inspiration from, and most of them have never received a dime for the usage of their work. Accordingly, some feel that the ‘Blurred Lines’ ruling has created a safety net for those artists who discover their work has been sampled without authorization by providing them with a means to receive fair compensation.
This safety net was most recently used last year after controversy plagued Bad Bunny’s hit song ‘Safaera.’ The song is a cultural homage to reggaeton’s greats through its use of samples and interpolations of several songs throughout its nearly five-minute length. However, it was revealed that the use of these samples had, in fact, not been authorized by any of the original performers (which included Missy Elliott’s hit song ‘Get Ur Freak On’) when a lawsuit was filed against Bad Bunny, which resulted in the song briefly being pulled off of streaming services. When ‘Safaera’ re-appeared, Elliott and the fifteen other songwriters were credited on the track, and they now receive nearly 99% of the song’s royalties.
Supporters of the ‘Blurred Lines’ ruling also tout it as a win for smaller artists who have struggled to be appropriately credited for their work when other artists use it. For example, with the recent release of Renaissance, Beyonce’s latest studio album, there was a significant amount of discussion about her “bloated” album credits, which list a staggering 104 songwriters. However, by crediting artists for even the slightest riff or melody that can be seen as a sample or interpolation, Beyonce and her legal team can avoid any potential infringement claims that may arise in the future and ensure that smaller artists are appropriately acknowledged and compensated.
While there are individuals who feel that the ruling has sufficiently held artists more accountable and provided a remedy for smaller artists who may have previously foregone legal action, believing that their efforts would be futile, there is an opposing view that the ‘Blurred Lines’ decision opened a doorway for opportunists to file infringement claims after a song has achieved popularity, in the hopes of receiving a hefty settlement. Over 200 artists signed an amicus brief in 2016 when Williams and Thicke attempted to appeal the trial court’s decision. They expressed their concern about the adverse effect the ruling would have on the creativity of present and future artists.
Ed Sheeran is one of the artists who has been a frequent target of these bad-faith actors. In 2016, a year after the ‘Blurred Lines’ ruling, Sheeran’s hit single ‘Thinking out Loud’ was accused of ripping off Marvin Gaye’s ‘Let’s Get it On’, and a suit was filed against him by the estate of one of the song’s co-writers. He was then hit with a $20 million lawsuit claiming that his song ‘Photograph’ had a similar melody to a song titled ‘Amazing.’ This suit was later settled out of court, and the songwriters were retroactively credited on the track. Sheeran was confronted with even more claims of plagiarism and infringement shortly after releasing his single ‘Shape of You’ in 2017. Claims began to float around that the track was eerily similar to TLC’s hit single ‘No Scrubs,’ and Sheeran’s team swiftly settled the matter by retroactively crediting the “No Scrubs” songwriters. In the aftermath of this controversy, Sheeran has openly spoken about its impact on his songwriting process, as he now feels the need to take extra precautions by recording all of his studio sessions to ward off future accusers who may try to bring infringement claims against him.
Artists may also be less likely to be transparent about the creative process behind their music for fear of it being used against them in court. For example, Dua Lipa and Olivia Rodrigo released albums that were heavily inspired by the past: Lipa stated that she was heavily influenced by disco and funk music when creating her album Future Nostalgia, and Rodrigo repeatedly named early 2000s pop punk as inspiration for her debut album. Consequently, Lipa was hit with two lawsuits over her single ‘Levitating,’ and both plaintiffs pointed to Lipa’s previous statements about her musical inspirations as evidence that she had materially copied their song. Rodrigo faced similar issues shortly after the release of her single ‘Good 4 U’ as murmurings began to circulate that her song closely resembled Paramore’s ‘Misery Business.’ Her team swiftly responded to the rumors by retroactively crediting Hayley Williams and the other members of Paramore. It is evident that artists are now going above and beyond to shield themselves from lawsuits by crediting these accusers or potential accusers onto their songs, even if they did not, in fact, sample the artists’ work. Bad-faith actors are aware that they can wield the threat of a drawn-out legal process over the heads of the artists. Furthermore, they utilize this knowledge with the hope that they will either: walk away with a hefty settlement if the artist is averse to proceeding to a trial or receive a generous award of damages by a jury composed of everyday citizens who are not trained musicologists.
Ultimately, both sides have made firm arguments about the supposed merits or pitfalls of the ‘Blurred Lines’ ruling and the longstanding effects it could have on the industry. There is undoubtedly a better legal precedent that courts can follow, which would continue to protect artists whose copyrighted works are being unfairly used while also deterring those who target big-name artists in the hopes of squeezing out a sizable amount of cash through a pre-trial settlement or jury verdict.