More than a year has passed since a jury ruled that musicians Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke, and T.I. have to shell out $7.3 million for their 2013 hit song “Blurred Lines” infringing on the copyright of Marvin Gaye’s 1977 party tune “Got to Give You Up.”
The verdict—which said Williams and Thicke copied the vibe of Gaye’s song even if no lyrics or melodies were lifted—was met with no small amount of alarm from the music community at the time, and the artists are appealing the decision.
This week, 212 musicians, composers, and producers filed an amicus curiae letter to the case, insisting that the current judgment “is certain to stifle creativity” and eliminates “any meaningful standard for drawing the line between permissible inspiration and unlawful copying.”
There are some big—and unexpectedly diverse—names on the list, including:
- Hall & Oates
- Linkin Park
- Jason Mraz
- Earth, Wind, and Fire
- Fall Out Boy
- Tears for Fears
- Jennifer Hudson
- Jean Baptiste
- Three 6 Mafia
- Butch Walker
- Dust Brothers
- R. Kelly
- The Black Crowes
- Hans Zimmer
If a song’s general vibe or feel is subject to copyright, the creators say, then any songwriter who draws any sort of inspiration from previous works of music could be subject to legal punishment—a formidable threat to both musicians (many of whom already struggle under financial burdens) and the future of music itself.
Their argument, though buoyed by technical points, brings up all the potential excellence that could be lost, and it reads almost as a warning:
One can only imagine what our music would have sounded like if David Bowie would have been afraid to draw from Shirley Bassie, or if the Beatles would have been afraid to draw from Chuck Berry, or if Elton John would have been afraid to draw from the Beatles, or if Elvis Presley would have been afraid to draw from his many influences.
Williams himself worried publicly last year about the verdict having a chilling effect on creators in other industries beyond music. (The design world is, in fact, fighting a somewhat inverted copyright battle of its own right now, as Apple and Samsung go head-to-head over patents for packaging and rounded corners on smartphone devices—and hundreds of designers are rallying against counterfeiting.)
But since 2015, the “Blurred Lines” ruling has also been confusingly muddied by later court cases, such as one in which a jury cleared Led Zeppelin of plagiarizing chord progressions for its famous “Stairway to Heaven.” The only thing clear right now is that the rules of music copyright are not clear in the slightest.