Friday, March 27, 2015

Marvin Gaye – "Got To Give It Up" (1977)

This is such a groovy place
All the young ladies are so fine!

"Got to Give It Up" was a #1 hit for the late Marvin Gaye in 1977.  "Blurred Lines" was a #1 hit for Robin Thicke in 2013.

Earlier this month, a Los Angeles jury found that "Blurred Lines" (which was written by Pharrell Williams) infringed Gaye's copyright on "Got to Give It Up," and awarded Gaye's family $7.4 million in damages.  

Marvin Gaye
I don't care how rich you are.  When you got to give it up to the tune of $7.4 million, you feel like you just got it up your you-know-what.

Writing in the New Yorker, Columbia Law School professor Tim Wu opined that not only was the jury's decision a mistake, but that the correct legal outcome was so clear that the judge shouldn't have even let the case go to the jury.  

According to Wu,

There is no question that Pharrell was inspired by Gaye and borrowed from him; he has freely admitted as much.  But, by that standard, every composer would be a lawbreaker.  The question is not whether Pharrell borrowed from Gaye but whether Gaye owned the thing that was borrowed.  And this is where the case falls apart.  For it was not any actual sequence of notes that Pharrell borrowed, but rather the general style of Gaye’s songs.  That is why “Blurred Lines” sounds very much like a Marvin Gaye song.  But to say that something “sounds like” something else does not amount to copyright infringement.

Copyright law is a hot mess.  Every time I've tried to figure out copyright law as it applies to music recordings, I've ended up with a headache.  But maybe I can explain a few things that will help you understand this case.

Robin Thicke
First of all, you should understand that Gaye's copyright extended only to the notes of the song – what you would see on sheet music for "Got to Give It Up" – and not the way those notes were performed on the song recording.

For example, both songs feature a falsetto lead vocal by a male singer, and both songs use a cowbell in a similar fashion.  Williams may have chosen to incorporate those elements in "Blurred Lines" because he was influenced by Marvin Gaye's use of them, but Gaye's copyright does not extend to a falsetto lead vocal and the use of a cowbell.

As a result, the judge ruled that the Gaye family's lawyers would not be able to play the sound recording of “Got To Give It Up” in court because it might influence the jury unfairly.  Instead, the  jurors were instructed to compare “Blurred Lines” and “Got To Give It Up” only on the basis of their melodies, chords, and lyrics.  

The judge did allow the jury to listen to a stripped-down version of Gaye's song.  (Assuming that some of the jurors couldn't read music the judge may have felt that he had to allow that.)  The Gaye family's lawyer also called expert musicologists to testify about the similarities between the two compositions.  

Juries are often influenced by the credibility and likability of the litigants.  Robin Thicke certainly didn't help himself when it came to winning friends and influencing the people on the jury.

Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus
Before the trial, Thicke told the media that "Got to Give It Up" inspired "Blurred Lines."  But in his deposition, the singer said that he was drunk and high on Vicodin during those interviews, and that what he said in those interviews was untrue.  He also admitted that he asked for a co-writer's credit on "Blurred Lines" even though Williams wrote the song almost singlehandedly.

More from Professor Wu:

The Gaye estate’s victory was an accomplished piece of lawyering . . . . The estate’s lawyers, taking advantage of the fact that Gaye is considerably more popular and respected than Thicke, made a dispute between two groups of wealthy people seem like a battle between good and evil.  Rather than focussing on what Gaye’s estate actually owned, the trial became a referendum on Thicke’s character.  As for that, the verdict was already clear.

Personally, I wonder if the jury had a problem with Pharrell's stupid hats:

Some of the biggest names in the songwriting business have been found guilty of infringement, including the legendary Brian Wilson.  

From the Los Angeles Times:

Wilson [told a story about] one of his group's big early hits, "Surfin' U.S.A.," which he built on melodic elements of a song by of one of his rock 'n' roll heroes, Chuck Berry.
"I just took 'Sweet Little Sixteen' and rewrote it into something of our own," Wilson, 72, said during an inyerview.
He was surprised — and not a little hurt, he said — when Berry's publisher later suggested that he'd done more than pay tribute to Berry, charging that "Surfin' U.S.A." plagiarized Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen." Berry prevailed and writing credit and publishing royalties were signed over to him.  
(Note the songwriter credit)
The Beatles had their share of copyright problems, too.  Chuck Berry also argued successfully that the Beatles' 1969 hit "Come Together" infringed Berry's "You Can't Catch Me."  And former Beatle George Harrison lost in court when the publishers of the Chiffons' 1963 hit "He's So Fine" claimed that Harrison's solo hit "My Sweet Lord" had copied the earlier song.
Stevie Wonder was one of the many prominent musicians who questioned the jury's finding that "Blurred Lines" infringed "Got To Give It Up."

I don’t think it’s a steal from Marvin Gaye.  I’ve been through lawsuits for songs and all that.  I think that the groove is very similar but you have to remember [Pharrell] is a big fan of Marvin Gaye’s so that’s okay.  But the song is not like Marvin Gaye’s.  It is not the same.
(You're probably think I quoted Stevie Wonder just so I could say something tasteless like "Even a blind man can see that the jury was wrong."  Sorry to disappoint you, boys and girls.)

Other musicians were gleeful that the jury administered a legal spanking to Robin Thicke – either because they are envious of Robin Thicke's commercial success, or because they are envious that he got a hot naked chick to appear in the "Blurred Lines" video with him:

Here's a mashup of the two songs so you can compare them for yourself:

Here's "Got To Give It Up":

Click below to buy the song from Amazon:

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