Marvin Gaye Estate to Robin Thicke: Let’s Get It On
Robin Thicke was back in the news this past week. No, we’re not talking about his provocative appearance with Miley Cyrus at the MTV Video Music Awards, which garnered him — and his performance partner — attention the world over. A recent development regarding the undisputed song of the summer, “Blurred Lines,” has Thicke wondering whether he’s “Got To Give It Up.” It was reported that the Estate of Marvin Gaye rejected a “six-figure” offer to settle a copyright infringement lawsuit against Thicke.
This comes on the heels of Thicke’s filing a lawsuit earlier this month entitled Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke, and Clifford Harris Jr. vs. Bridgeport Music, Inc., Frankie Christian Gaye, Marvin Gaye III, Nona Marvisa Gaye, and Does 1 through 10, inclusive, CV13-06004, in which he, along with his “Blurred Lines” collaborators and co-writers Williams and Harris, Jr. (better known as T.I.), asked a federal court in the Central District of California to and award him a declaratory judgment of non-infringement against Gaye’s Estate and the company controlling Funkadelic’s recording catalog.
The first, more well-known recording in this suit — owned by the heirs to Marvin Gaye’s estate, Marvin Gaye III, Franklin Gaye, and Nona Gaye — is Gaye’s 1977 No. 1 hit “Got To Give It Up” (coincidentally, one of the songs of that summer). While the lyrical composition and structure of the songs is essentially different, it appears that Gaye’s estate believes that the “look and feel” of the two songs is substantially similar, and thus infringing. This is an easy argument to make when listening to the songs side-by-side, as the baseline is identical (though slightly sped up) and appears to be sampled from Gaye’s recording.
The second recording, “Sexy Ways” by Funkadelic, is more obscure than Gaye’s hit (and, to this listener’s ear, even less similar to “Blurred Lines”). But the inclusion of “Sexy Ways” in the declaratory judgment suit is perhaps a more interesting development because of who owns it: not George Clinton, himself, but none other than the copyright trolling kings, Bridgeport Music, Inc., the music publishing company which controls all of Funkadelic’s recording copyrights.
Bridgeport Music remains infamous within the copyright community for filing a lawsuit in 2001 (Bridgeport Music, Inc. v. 11C Music, 202 F.R.D. 229 (M.D. Tenn 2001)) alleging infringement of its Funkadelic copyrights and seeking a declaratory judgment, injunctive relief, and damages in around 500 different claims against approximately 800 defendants. The court decided that these cases should all be tried separately, which resulted in 477 individual cases, or what some would call a colossal waste of resources by the United States District Court in the Middle District of Tennessee.
Both Gaye’s Estate and Bridgeport Music wrote separate letters to Thicke’s attorneys demanding compensation for the perceived copyright infringement. Rather than respond to either, Thicke and his co-plaintiffs filed the complaint seeking a judicial declaration of the rights of the respective parties, including and especially that “Blurred Lines” does not infringe the two recordings in any way, and seeking costs and attorneys’ fees.
There remain many possible explanations for Gaye’s Estate’s refusal to settle. Gaye’s influence is evident throughout Thicke’s music, from the use of a Gaye-like falsetto in many of the singer’s biggest hits to, coincidentally (or not), titling his most recent single “Give It 2 U,” a clear homage to the artist in question in this case. However, an interview Thicke gave with GQ in May remains the likeliest reason that the Gaye Estate has refused to settle. Speaking about how “Blurred Lines” came about, Thicke said:
“Pharrell and I were in the studio and I told him that one of my favorite songs of all time was Marvin Gaye’s “Got to Give It Up.” I was like, ‘Damn, we should make something like that, something with that groove.’ Then he started playing a little something and we literally wrote the song in about a half hour and recorded it. The whole thing was done in a couple hours.”
“What’s Going On?” Well, evidence of willful infringement could result in the highest possible damages against Thicke and his co-writers: up to $150,000 per infringement. From the looks of it, if Thicke and the plaintiffs want to settle, they may need to add another zero.
Source: ECF Docket, Pharrell Williams, Robin Thicke and Clifford Harris Jr. vs. Bridgeport Music, Inc., Frankie Christian Gaye, Marvin Gaye III, Nona Marvisa Gaye and Does 1 through 10, inclusive, CV13-06004, Central District of California, Western Division